I tried not to stare, though of course those girls must be used to open-mouthed admiration. Then I realised, with pleasure, that this amazing trio was actually approaching us. The older woman was about to speak. I sat up, with a welcoming smile.
Suze and Bobbi and I were in Europe for the summer. This had become the pattern of our lives in the last few years. We spent our winters in New Mexico, where I taught philosophy and Suze worked as a software engineer. Every summer we crossed the Atlantic. As yet we had no fixed abode over here, but we were looking. We saw our travels as a series of auditions. This year we were considering the Mediterranean for the role of our summer home. But we had fled from an overcrowded villa-party on the Cote d'Azur. Trop du monde on the French Riviera; so here we were in mid-August, our comfortable trailer planted on a sun-punished hillside under the brilliant, mythic sky of Haut Provence, at the simple but very spruce and attractive 'Camping International St Mauro'.
'Wow,' murmured my wife, Suze. She was lying beside my lounger on a blanket, there under the cork oaks. She propped herself on one elbow to gaze at this glorious vision. Our daughter Bobbi continued to pursue her new hobby of plaguing the little red ants that infested our terrace. She had scattered a handful of breadcrumbs for them, and as they staggered home with the goods she was blocking their trail with impossible obstacles and pitfalls.
'Hello,' said the woman, at once announcing herself as English, and probably upper-class (but many English accents, I admit, sound absurdly aristocratic to American speakers) 'I couldn't help noticing, I saw you in St Mauro earlier: you are Americans aren't you?'
'We're from New Mexico,' agreed Suze, grinning. 'I'm Suze Bonner. This is my wife, Thea Lalande. That's Bobbi, but she won't talk to you, she's an uncouth little kid. Isn't this place great. We just picked it off the road map.'
Suze thought any place where there was heat and a minimum of human activity 'great'. The fact that St Mauro possessed no culture I could drag her around was a further advantage. I sometimes wondered why she allowed me to uproot her from her native desert at all.
'Absolutely ravishing,' said our new aquaintance. 'And so peaceful. I'm Laura Brown. This is Celine, and this is Carmen. We're staying outside the village.' The twins smiled, perfectly. Laura Brown took off her sunglasses and gazed at Bobbi. 'Actually, I was wondering if we would see you at the fete tonight.'
'Fete?' Bobbi's head came up as if bouncing on a spring. 'Will there be fireworks?'
Laura Brown laughed. 'I'm afraid not!'
'Unnh.' With a shrug, my charming little daughter returned to her evil deeds.
Our new friend, still watching Bobbi with curious attention, went on, 'it's a small affair. Flamenco Guitar and -- ' She consulted a piece of paper taken from her shoulder bag. 'A couscous. At the bar called The Squirrel, L'Ecureuil. But there's only one bar, you can't miss it. Well, I hope you three will be there. It could be fun. A bientot, enfin.'
'Au'voir,' chimed Celine and Carmen.
The heavenly twins passed on by. Trailing behind them came a skinny girl of about Bobbi's age, or maybe a little older: ten or twelve. She was wearing grubby blue shorts and a candy striped teeshirt that had seen better days. Her rough brown head was hanging sulkily, her eyes fixed on the dust she kicked up with her dirty espadrilles. As she came level with us she looked up, and shot Bobbi a baleful glance ... I wouldn't have thought she had anything to do with the other three, except that Laura Brown turned and called: 'Marianina, please keep up. And don't scuff your shoes like that! My youngest daughter,' she explained, as if to excuse the sudden sharpness in her tone. 'Such a little ragamuffin. There's nothing I can do about it.'
'I wonder what went wrong there,' murmured Suze, when the family was out of sight. 'You think the other two, the twins are -- ?'
'Of course. What else could they be, looking like that?'
Bobbi, naturally, pounced. Children have an infallible ear for their parents' indiscreet remarks. 'What? What are they? What do you think they are?'
'They look like a pair of Barbie dolls,' muttered Bobbi.
Suze and I agreed, via a silent exchanged glance, that the subject was closed. Another word, and our darling child would disgrace us by saying something incredibly rude when we next met the beautiful sisters and their mama.
We decided not to risk the 'couscous'. We ate pasta under the cork oaks in the shimmering light of evening; with a sauce of stewed red pepper strips and tomatoes, and a wine of the region which I'd bought from the campsite bureau. It was delicious, that wine: straw-yellow, dry but not too dry; and so delicately, subtly scented! The tepid air was tinged with indigo, the drowsy scent of the scorched maquis grew stronger as the sun descended. We seemed poised on a pinnacle of exquisite calm: like a foretaste of Paradise.
Suze touched my hand. 'Here?' she murmured.
But my peace was not complete. I was thinking of Laura Brown and her twins, and the sad fate of that dirty little girl, trailing along behind such beautiful older sisters. I didn't answer at once. Suze reached over traced with her finger a little knot of tension, that had formed without my realising it at the corner of my jaw.
She stood up, and stretched. 'Why do I get the feeling that we've been invited to this festa by royal command? Well, let's go, anyway. At least we'll have something great to look at.'
Inspite of Suze's cynicism and my vague misgivings we had a terrific time that night, at the little bar called L'Ecureuil. The local population was out in force, far outnumbering us tourists; which always makes for a better atmosphere. The sangria flowed and the guitarists were superb. Perhaps nothing less would have made the evening so memorable. But from the first, fierce, poignant attack of that music, that stiffened all our spines and opened our eyes wide, the festa was alight. Soon as the first set was over people were talking, laughing, speaking in tongues. Barriers of language, nationality and income vanished. People started dancing on the tiny patio, that looked down on Van Gogh terraces of olive trees in red earth. The stars came out, Suze and I danced together. The mayor of the village, a plump little woman in a purple kaftan and tiny black slippers, danced alone: the genuine flamenco, wherever she'd learned it, with haughty eyes and a fiery precision that brought wild applause. Celine and Carmen, indistinguishable in pretty full-skirted sundresses, one red, one blue, danced with anyone who asked them (I hadn't the courage). Suze said 'all we need now is the handsome prince'.
'But how's he going to choose between them?'
'He's a fool if he tries. He should take them both!'
I looked for the third daughter, and spotted her sitting in a corner beside a glum, fat woman in a print overall. She was wearing a different teeshirt but the same grubby shorts, and brooding over a half-empty glass of cola. The two of them seemed the only people in the world who weren't enjoying themselves. I know how moody little girls can be. Maybe it was her own idea not to dress up, and her own plan not to have fun. But I felt sorry for the child.
I was eating the couscous after all -- having a good time always makes me hungry -- when Mrs Brown came to join me. Suze was with Bobbi, indoors, with the crowd of local kids around the table football machine.
This Englishwoman had a very direct way of asking questions and handing over information. As Suze had remarked, there was something autocratic about her friendliness. She had soon told me that the twins were what we had guessed. They were clones: genetic replicants of their mother, with a few enhancements. It was a simple story. She'd been married to a man who was unfortunately infertile, but luckily extremely rich. It had suited his fancy to have his beautiful young wife copied: and then, two of the implanted embryos had 'come through' as she put it. 'I carried them myself,' she said. 'though my husband didn't like it. He thought pregnancy would spoil my figure. But I couldn't bring myself to use a surrogate. It wouldn't be the same, would it? They wouldn't have been completely mine.'
Later, the marriage having ended, her third daughter had been the result of a natural conception with a different father ...
A mistake, in other words, I thought. Or an experiment that went wrong. Poor kid!
'What about you? Did you carry Bobbi, or did Suze?'
'It was me.'
Thea drew the short straw, we used to joke. We both knew I'd been the lucky one. One parent of a fused-egg embryo is always more compatible with the fetus than the other, and that's how the choice of birth-mother is made.
'And, excuse me for asking, did Bobbi have a father?'
I explained, with modest pride, that she was all our own work. The fused-egg embryo treatment, imprinting decided by synthetic methylation, a true recombination of the genetic traits from each female partner --
So we confided, quickly becoming intimate; like people who first suspect and then confirm that they are both members of the same secret society. As indeed we were, though there's nothing really secret about modern reproduction technology. Bobbi has never met any prejudice. It helps, no doubt, that you have to be relatively rich, and therefore de facto respectable, before you can afford these techniques. I noticed that Mrs Brown's furtive interest in my daughter (which had struck me when we met on the campsite) diminished when she knew Bobbi's provenance. The regal Mrs Brown, I decided, had been afraid we Americans had a better, more advanced model of child than her twins. Now she'd assured herself that this was not the case -- that Bobbi was a mere copy of her two mothers, with no improvements -- her curiosity vanished. We passed on to other topics.
I wondered if I dared to mention the youngest girl, maybe suggest that she and Bobbi could get together. But when I looked around I couldn't see her. The corner where she'd been lurking was empty.
'What is it?' asked Mrs Brown. 'Is something the matter?'
Celine and Carmen were still happily dancing. 'I was looking for Marianina.'
'Oh, she went back to the villa,' she explained casually. 'With Germaine, my nanny.' She laughed. 'Marianina hates parties. She's too young, she gets so bored.' But her eyes wouldn't meet mine. I knew she was hiding something. Marianina, I guessed, had been sent home in some kind of disgrace. Poor little Cinderella!
Bobbi stayed with us at the bar until three am, along with probably every child of her age for miles around except Marianina. We stayed long after Mrs Brown and the beautiful twins had departed, until the very end of the party: when the flamenco guitarists joyously played and everybody sang, at the tops of our voices, the simplest of drinking songs: the songs that everybody in Europe knows; or sings along anyway.
-- ce soir je buvais!
ce soir je buvais heureux!
A few hours later I woke up in the trailer, with a terrible hangover and the dim memory of Suze trying in vain to get me to take an Alco-soothe. Since even miraculous modern medicine can do little about the morning after once you've let things get that far, I got up. I took a tepid shower in our tiny closet bathroom and went for a walk to clear my head.
That covetable pitch on the topmost terrace, which we had admired when we first arrived, had fallen vacant. The red car that had been parked there had disappeared; so had the little climbing tent. I went up there and sat on a rock, in blissful solitude, gazing southward towards the twinkling three cornered smile of the sea. I was thinking of a paper I had to write, for a conference in the fall; and of finding a house in Provence or the Alps Maritime, with vines around the door and a roof of roman tiles. It was so difficult to choose a resting place, in this summer world where neither Suze nor I had any roots. Too much freedom can be as frustrating as too little.
I wondered if I could see the villa where Mrs Brown was staying.
I didn't notice the little girl who came scrambling up the hill until she burst out of the bushes right in front of me -- and stood there, glowering, holding what looked like a bottle of shampoo. It was Marianina. She had been expecting someone, but not me. This was my first impression as the child stood, stared, and then came slowly towards me.
'You left this behind in the showers,' she said, in french.
'No, it's not mine.'
It was very odd. I couldn't think what she was doing on the campsite, or why she was pretending that she'd come from the sanitaires, when those modest toilet facilities were in completely the opposite direction from her approach. She was dressed as she had been at L'Ecureuil, the same shorts and the same teeshirt. The contrast between this girl and the rest of her family was more startling in their absence: to think of all that golden perfection and see Marianina's rough brown head, her scratched, dust-smeared arms and legs as thin as knotted wire. She went on staring at me unpleasantly: a child already embodying the threat of adolescence, a neglected child who would throw stones, let down tyres, perhaps steal. Perhaps she had stolen the bottle of shampoo.
'Were you looking for someone?' I tried not to sound aggressive.
'So, they've gone,' said the little girl.
'My friends.' She came closer: closer than was comfortable. Still sitting on my rock, I was trapped by her scrawny, demanding presence. I could feel her breath.
'What is it?'
'We were going to make a rocket.' She still spoke in french. 'But they've gone.'
'I don't understand you. What do you want?'
With an indescribably sly and ugly smile, she thrust a finger into the open mouth of her plastic bottle, and then pulled it out covered in pale slime.
I jumped up. Perhaps I was over-reacting, but I did not like the situation. I didn't want any part of a little girl -- perhaps ten, twelve years old -- who behaved like this. I did not want to be alone with her. As I sprang to my feet the child darted away. I went to the edge of the terrace and saw her, half way down the hill already, slithering on her bony little rump. As I watched she reached the level ground, turned and stood malignly repeating that sexual-seeming play with the bottle and her grubby finger.
Back at our trailer Suze was making breakfast, breaking fresh eggs into fragrant melted butter. The bread van had arrived at the campsite gates, tooting like a steam-train. Bobbi came running back from there with an armful of warm baguettes. I made coffee. I didn't mention my encounter. We ate our petit-dejeuner sur l'herbe, and I talked about the paper I was writing.
'How do you copy a chair?' I asked Bobbi.
'You could draw a picture.'
'That would be a picture of a chair. Another chair is another sum of things taken out of the world. A certain quantity of wood, metal or plastics: varnish, maybe nails, wear on the machinery or tools; a measurable expense of food, or energy from whatever source. Something for something. It's like double-entry book-keeping. A thousand chairs means a thousand objects at a certain cost per unit. One can bring that cost down, but it is always, allowing for all your expenses, a substantial fraction of the first amount. But if you copy a piece of software a thousand times, what is the cost?'
I was getting my own back for the times when Suze, the scientist, would hold our baby entranced explaining the table of the elements; the anatomy of a star.
'Eerm, wear and tear on the keyboard? Wear and tear on the storage disc!'
'Infinitesimal,' I said. 'And not equivalent in the same way. This is the problem, Bobbi, and it isn't just a problem of economics. We have a system of values, of morality, based on people competing with each other to copy things, at the lowest possible cost per unit. That's capitalism. But when the cost, the object of all this competition, effectively disappears, what happens to our system? Life gets very puzzling. Do you remember the Mickey Mouse episode in Fantasia? When Mickey uses the magician's spell, and the magic broomsticks just keep on coming, appearing out of nothing, more and more of them, and they won't stop?'
I'd decided to call my paper `The Sorcerer's Apprentice'.
'Leave the kid alone, Thea,' said my wife, passing me plate of eggs and dropping a kiss on the tip of Bobbi's freckled nose. 'She has no idea what you're talking about, poor baby.'
'No, I like it!' cried our daughter, bouncing up and down. 'I like it! Let her tell me!'
Our miracle of the modern world: made possible by prosaic laboratory science, but to us completely magical. I thought of that other little girl and her starved, all-too-knowing eyes.
I went to the bureau to buy more of that wine. The manageress, an Italian woman with bushy black hair and a beak of a nose, was in a talkative mood. I had the impression that she approved of Suze and Bobbi and myself. She liked our American passports. She liked the fact that Suze and I were married, a pleasant example of the new world (a newer world than the USA!) showing affection and respect for the old ways. I mentioned the English family, and learned that Mrs Brown was not a regular visitor. She had arrived in St Mauro for the first time a week before: but she had created a good impression by spending money locally. We agreed that the twins were phenomenally pretty.
'And the youngest girl. I suppose she's made friends with some other children on the campsite? I saw her here this morning.' I was uneasy about that child. Her malevolence, or her unhappiness, had cast a shadow on me.
'Ah. La Cenerentola!' The woman grimaced and shook her head.
It was the name I'd used myself. 'Why do you call her Cinderella? Because of her sisters? The Brown sisters certainly aren't ugly!'
'I call her that because she's a sad case. Something went wrong, eh? One only has to look at the older girls to see what they are to the mother.' She shrugged. 'Vanity parenting! I've heard of it. But it looks as if, the third time, Madame wasted her money.'
I suppose one has to meet prejudice sometime. I muttered, (embarrassed, but feeling it was my duty to defend Mrs Brown), that Bobbi was also the result of an artificial technique.
'Listen. I'm not saying it's wrong. It's the fruit of it. Why bear a child, no matter how the baby was conceived, just to do her harm?' The Italian woman drew herself up, looked from right to left, and leaned darkly forward over her desk, with its innocent sheaves of bright-coloured tourist leaflets. 'You saw her here, eh?' she hissed. 'Do you know why she here on my camping, la cenerentola? She was looking for the couple who have left, those climbers. And do you know what she wanted with them?'
'Well, I know. That is why they left, obviously, so suddenly: because she'd been with them, and they were ashamed. It was the woman, I expect. She did it too but she was ashamed, and she wanted to get her man away from the nastiness. Believe me, I tell you what I think. I don't say the couple weren't to blame. But it surely was not the first time for la cenerentola. A child doesn't go around asking for that. Not unless she is getting it already, eh? Eh?'
I escaped, feeling terrible. If there wasn't a word of truth in the manageress's vicious gossip, it was still extremely distasteful. The next thing I knew, I'd be under suspicion myself. When I got the chance (while Bobbi spent the afternoon sleeping off her late night) I told Suze everything. We agreed that the child did look neglected, and there really might be something wrong, something ugly going on. What could we do? Nothing.
But Mauro had turned sour on us. It was time to move on.
'It's quiet now,' said Suze. 'But at three in the afternoon, anywhere is quiet. Think of the noise at night.'
'Oh please, oh please,' begged Bobbi, who only wanted to get to the beach.
The padrone explained that the window shutters were completely soundproof.
'My wife suffers from athsma, and cannot bear a stuffy atmosphere.'
Ah, but when the shutters were closed tight these rooms -- two pretty rooms, and a bathroom between them -- would still be airy, beautifully airy, the way you Americans like, because of the inner courtyard --
I stepped out with him onto the open gallery. We looked down, we looked up. He explained the ingenious and environmentally sound air-conditioning system. It was a very nice courtyard, with a fountain pool in the centre and big planters full of greenery. I was delighted with our choice. I suspected Suze was delighted as well, but she was angling for a discount. My Suze always likes to squeeze the envelope: she's always trying to get the work done with one instruction the less.
'Suze, this place is lovely -- ' I began, perfidiously. I looked up, once more. La cenerentola was leaning over the gallery rail on the floor above, staring at me. I stepped backwards, really shaken. That sour little face, peering down at me: so vivid, it was like an hallucination.
'I don't know,' I said. 'Let's go away. Let's think about it.'
'Madame, is something wrong?'
'Thea! You look as if you're going to faint!'
And alas for me, I almost did faint. I was dizzy, it was the heat, maybe my period was coming on. I couldn't explain myself, I couldn't possibly tell the truth. Naturally, by the time the padrone had fussed over me, and his wife had administered delicious lemonade (for the sugar, the best thing for faintness), all discussion was over. We were installed.
But in any case I wasn't frightened any more. What was there to be frightened about?
I was left at the hotel, lying down, because of my faintness, while Suze took Bobbi for her first swim (the padrone having given careful directions to a very nice, really clean beach). I felt fine. After an hour or so I got up, and went out. There in the piazza, sitting alone at a table outside the cafe, I saw Laura Brown.
It seemed to me that we were both struck by the same emotions. We saw each other, would have liked to pretend not to recognise each other: we accepted the inevitable.
She smiled, I smiled. She beckoned me to join her.
'It was at Mauro,' I said. 'In Provence -- '
'But of course I remember. Thea and Suze, the American couple with the charming daughter. And you're you staying at La Fontana? What a coincidence!'
She insisted on buying me a drink, I ordered a Coke. I spoke of Bobbi, and how difficult it could be to keep a child entertained. I suggested (my voice almost shaking, I had such a bad conscience about my suspicions) she must have the same problem with Marianina. Maybe the two little girls could be company for each other?
Mrs Brown said 'perhaps' in a tone that meant refusal. We looked at each other through our sunglasses. I thanked her for my drink, and went on my way.
It was all so normal. A holiday acquaintance, that neither of us really wished to pursue. Why did I have the strange conviction that as soon as I was out of sight, Mrs Laura Brown would leap up, rush into the hotel, collect her family, pack her bags and flee -- like someone guilty of a monstrous crime?
I was wrong. The next day, Suze and Bobbi and I went together to the very nice, very clean beach. Almost at once I spotted Mrs Brown and her daughters. The twins, in matching green and gold bikinis, were unmistakable. The little girl, as usual, was sitting on her own, ignored by her sisters. I tried to stop myself from watching them. The beach was expensive (Suze muttered bitterly about the entrance fee) but it was beautiful. The Mediterranean, whatever the actual analysis of the water, was on its best behaviour: warm, silky, crystal clear. We sunbathed, we swam, we played ball. We had a delightful picnic, we lay in the sun.
'Tuscany?' murmured Suze, 'Culture for you, the beach for me.' She touched my hand, as we lay in the shade of our jaunty umbrella, while Bobbi splashed in the sea. 'Here?'
But I was distracted. 'I think I'll take a little walk.'
I thought I would go up and say hi. I would say hi, and get a close look at Marianina. Your Cinderella daughter, Mrs Brown. Do you treat her badly? Do you use her worse than a servant? I felt myself a sadly inadequate fairy godmother, but at least I would try to assure myself that there was no need; that the problem was in my imagination. Mrs Brown and her twins were lying on identical hired loungers. Laura Brown was reading a paperback. Celine and Carmen no longer looked so beautiful now that I believed their sister was being in some way abused. They were giggling and chatting, heads together.
Marianina didn't get a lounger, she was sitting on the sand.
As I approached I was feeling extremely self-concious. My courage failed: maybe I would give them a wave and walk on by. The sunlight glittered. Suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye, where there had been three sun-loungers there was only one. Mrs Brown and la cenerentola were alone.
So then I did go up to them, propelled by sheer amazement.
'Hello.' I said. And stood there, dumbstruck.
'Hello,' said the lady, putting aside her book. I noticed that her bikini was also green and gold. Her eyes were hidden, her smile was frost in the sun.
'There were three of you here just a moment ago,' I blurted: and corrected myself in confusion. 'I mean four. You and the twins, and the little girl.'
The cold smile faded. 'It's Thea, isn't it? How nice to see you again. Good day.' Mrs Brown returned to her book.
La cenerentola was sitting at her mother's feet, wearing only a pair of dark blue bikini pants. Her nipples were crusted with sand. She stared at me without speaking.
I went back to Suze, extremely confused. 'Suze, you'll never believe this. The clones, Mrs Brown's beautiful twins, I just saw them disappear. They vanished right in front of my eyes! Do you think I'm going crazy?'
Suze rolled over, and glared at me. 'Save it for your paper, Thea.'
'What do you mean?'
'I mean I'm tired of this. What is your problem with that family? What is so fascinating about them? You've talked about nothing else for days.' She jumped up, and stalked off to join Bobbi.
Suze didn't say another word about the Browns, but she must have been looking out for them. When we were leaving, at sunset, along with everyone else, she marched us across the carpark to a big white mercedes-solar that I remembered having seen in Mauro. Marianina was in the car. The twins were helping their mother to pack their beach stuff into the trunk.
'Hi Laura,' said Suze. 'Hi Carmen, hi Celine.'
'Hi Mrs Bonner,' chorused the twins sweetly, with their identical smile.
We walked away, Suze glowering triumphantly. I thought I'd better not mention that to me the beautiful twins had looked somehow diminished ... Like two coloured shadows of their former selves.
The next morning I saw Mrs Brown again, for the last time. I was up early, Suze was in the shower. Mrs Brown and her family were checking out. Germaine, the nanny, was directing the porter, who was carrying their bags out to the car. Marianina was with her. Celine and Carmen stood looking a little lost, while their mother validated her credit by passing an imperious hand across the ID screen. Mrs Brown gave a sharp glance up at the stairs, where I was standing. She moved towards the door. Then Celine and Carmen ... They melted. They flowed, they ran like liquid glass through the air. There was only one golden-haired figure, walking away.
I rushed up to the desk. 'Did you see that?' I demanded. 'Did you see? Flavia! Tell me!'
The desk clerk was our padrone's daughter, a sensible and intelligent girl. For a moment I thought she was going to deny everything. Perhaps she realised the truth was the best way to suppress my curiosity. She looked up, with wise young eyes.
'Dottora Lalande, two weeks ago a gentleman stayed here who was travelling with an eidolon, a hologram of his dead wife. We must set a place for her, serve dishes to her, arrange her room. He spoke to the digitally generated image as if it was alive. And though I know this is impossible, I am sure I heard the lady answer.'
'What are you telling me?'
'And there was the family from Germany, with the teenage boy who had taken gene-therapy to cure a terrible wasting disease. He was completely well, it was a miracle. At night this boy stayed out late. He came back to La Fontana not quite himself, you understand? Luckily, he could leap and hit the night-bell with his muzzle, so the porter would let him in. It was easy enough to wash the pawprints from the sheets.'
'What are you saying?'
'One sees everything, in the hotel trade, and one mentions nothing. These things happen, they happen more and more. It's best simply to accept them ... and look the other way.'
Mrs Brown had left no address, but I managed to get Flavia to tell me she had been heading north, to the Lakes. Over breakfast I tried to convince Suze that we had to follow and somehow track them down. I knew she was already angry with me over the Browns, but I couldn't help myself. I felt there was a disaster that I must try to avert. Suze accused me of being infatuated, either with Laura Brown or the heavenly twins. She refused to consider the idea of leaving Santa Margarita.
When Suze and Bobbi went to the beach I stayed behind.
I took our guide-book and set out to explore the town, in the hope that some distraction would help me to think. I had not dared to tell Suze about my second strange experience. For one thing, I suspected that young Flavia wouldn't back me up. But much as I hated to fight with Suze, I was desperate to unravel the mystery. What was happening to Celine and Carmen, and why? Had the desk clerk and I shared a hallucination? Or were Cinderella's sisters really capable of vanishing into thin air?
La cenerentola was there. She had climbed on the railings outside the Renaissance chapel. She was swinging from them, head down, her feet kicking in the air and her hair brushing the ancient stone of the porch steps. As I approached she flung herself down, carelessly scattering the passers-by, and stood glaring at me. She was wearing her favourite grubby shorts and teeshirt. As soon as she saw that she'd been recognised, she ran away.
Of course, I followed.
Marianina didn't run too fast. She made sure that I could keep up. Before long I found her waiting for me, in the small formal garden that surrounded the much-eroded remains of a Roman temple, on the edge of the pedestrianised centre. It was a quiet place. This was the end of summer; the flowerbeds had been allowed to fade. The roman fountain in their midst was dry, the benches round about stood empty. There was a chirping of insects, clear above the distant hum of traffic.
Children, when they're left to run wild, are uncouth creatures. They'll tell silly, arbitrary lies if they feel caught out, but not one in a thousand will naturally invent the concept of polite conversation. Marianina didn't say a word to me at first. She sat on a lump of carved stone, its meaning eroded beyond recognition, and examined a graze on her knee.
'I thought you guys had left Santa Margarita.' I offered, oppressed by her silence.
'We moved to a different hotel. We're leaving tomorrow.
'At the campsite in Mauro,' I said, 'they called you la cenerentola: Cinderella, because of your sisters. Is it true? Did they make you feel left out?'
The child flashed me one of her sly, hostile glances. 'Mummy said to tell you, leave us alone. Stop following us. There's nothing you can do.'
Prince Charming, I thought, rejected the step-sisters, their artificial finery and their contrived attractions. He chose the dirty girl: with her little hands as rough as the cinders, her careless rags, her knobbly knees, her insouciant independence. It was the same with Laura Brown. I had thought I understood everything: right from that first night, when she told me her story at L'Ecureuil. It had been obvious that she had not been interested in either of her children's fathers. There was no adult lover in her life. Maybe she was one of those people who cannot tolerate another adult as a lover ... That was why Marianina, scorned in public, had become the secret object of her affections, as the twins grew older.
I could understand how a child like this, deliberately humoured in all her native childish awkwardness (the sequences of DNA randomly recombined, no perfections but those of untamed chance and necessity) might seem the fairest, the true beauty. I could feel her troubling allure myself, and I'm no paedophile. She was so real. The Italian woman at the campsite had made up a vicious story which probably had no basis at all in fact. But a child can be corrupted, without any gross abuse ... Now I saw that whatever the relationship between Marianina and her mother, the situation was not that simple.
'What about your sisters. Will they be travelling with you?'
'Oh, them.' A smug grimace. 'I don't think they'll be around much longer.'
I felt suddenly chilled. 'What do you mean, they won't be around?'
'She hasn't said. But I think Mummy's taking them back.'
Marianina slid to the ground, scouring the backside of those long-suffering shorts.
'Taking them back? Back where?'
'Back where they came from, of course.'
La cenerentola had performed her errand. She'd had enough of my solemn eyes and stupid questions. She left, jumping over the stones and skipping away, without another word.
I see a beautiful woman, and the twin daughters who might be her sisters: daughters with that uncanny, replicant perfection of the optimised clone. She told me that their creation was her husband's idea. I don't know if I believe that, but in any case she has become tired of these flawless, sweet-natured dolls. The double mirror irritates her. The twins are sitting in a window embrasure, talking softly with each other. Perhaps they are deciding what they will wear tomorrow. They take comfort in clothes and make-up, because they know they have been superseded. I witness the transformation scene. I see how the two bodies are magically drawn across the room, and melt -- at first resisting desperately, but finally calm -- into the original of their flesh.
It is a triumph that la cenerentola in the story might have longed for, before she dreamt of going to the ball. Fathers are chancy creatures, the handsome prince is a shadowy promise. But mother, even if you are not completely her own creation, is the first object of any child's desire.
Now Cinderella is alone, with the only handsome prince this version of the story needs. Poor Carmen, poor Celine. This time it is forever.
We have beaten the stern old gods of the nineteenth century. But in escaping from them, could it be that we have let something wild and dangerous back into the world? Our magical technology may have unsuspected costs. In the end, stretched and spread over the world as we are by our desires, perhaps Suze and I will vanish like Mrs Brown's perfect twins. We will lose hold of our fantastical riches and fade away, like the ball-dress, the pumpkin-coach, the rat coachman ... in this case leaving nothing behind, not even a glass slipper.