Grazia Book Club: Catherine Isaac’s Messy, Wonderful Us

'My mother is holding hands with a young man I don’t know, someone I’ve never even seen before.'

Catherine Isaac Messy, Wonderful Us

by Catherine Isaac |
Updated on

The sound of laughter drifts upstairs from the kitchen as I gently open her wardrobe door, releasing a faint scent of lily of the valley. The interior is tightly packed with dresses and suits, all in muted fabrics, some still covered with plastic from the dry cleaners. I take out a dress and examine the label. It’s a size 16, which surprises me, so I put it back and check out some of the others.

Only, there’s a whole array of sizes, ranging from 12 to 16, and no indication as to which might be the most accurate. I close the door and decide to look in her chest of drawers instead, where I’m more likely to find a top that I know she’s worn recently. I work from the bottom up, opening the first drawer to find a stack of sweaters and the cashmere cardigan she had on when I saw her a couple of weeks ago. I take that out and check the label: size 14, much more what I was expecting. I want to leave the clothes as neatly as I found them, so I remove the pile to refold each item. But when I attempt to straighten the drawer liner, I realise there’s something underneath. I slide my fingernail under the edge and carefully lift it up. It’s then that I find the envelope.

It’s dry and faded with age, ripped open at the top. I don’t know what it is exactly that compels me to pick it up, slide out the letter and unfold it, carefully unfurling the old newspaper page concealed inside. I do it almost without thinking, stroking my fingers against the grey print before I can even contemplate the ethics of my intrusion.

It’s the date that I register first – 11 June 1983 – before I cast my gaze over a spread of pictures from a summer party held at Allerton People’s Hall to celebrate its centenary. There are two rows of photographs, some of austere- looking men in cricket whites, others of women in pleated skirts and batwing sleeves. There are teenage boys in Ray- Bans and polo shirts with popped- up collars, girls in crop tops and lace, looking sticky under the dying heat of the day. Then I spot the name on one caption: Christine Culpepper.

When my eyes settle on my mother’s face, at first I don’t think beyond the tug in my chest, a jolt of something sad and indefinable. But as I take in each detail, a creeping realisation begins to take hold. Something doesn’t add up.

My mother is holding hands with a young man I don’t know, someone I’ve never even seen before. Her mouth is curled up in a mysterious smile and teenage infatuation shines brightly in her eyes. The name of this unknown person, according to the caption, is Stefano McCourt. He looks to be older than my mother by a couple of years and has dark eyes, a full mouth and a gap in his teeth. I look at the date again, trying to reconcile each contradictory detail, but one in particular: the photo was taken nine months before I was born.

‘Five minutes until dinner,’ I hear Dad shout from downstairs. I don’t answer, ignoring the rapid thudding in my chest as I turn my attention to the handwritten letter. It is addressed to my Grandma Peggy and dated December 1983. There’s no address from the sender.

Dear Mrs Culpepper,

I write to respectfully ask you not to contact Stefano, myself, or my husband Michael again via his office at the Museo di Castelvecchio.

While I understand that you are in shock about Christine and Stefano – we all are – no good can come of us continuing to maintain contact. I am particularly upset about you writing to my son about his supposed responsibilities to his ‘flesh and blood’. This kind of emotional blackmail is very wrong when he already made his decision not to have anything more to do with your daughter before our family left Liverpool. The fact that he moved back to Italy with us should have made this very clear.

From what you said in your letter, Christine has now made amends with her boyfriend. He will no doubt make a good father to the baby. So why rock the boat by trying to bring Stefano back into the equation when nobody needs to know the truth? the truth? He is not going to change his mind and he has absolutely no intention of returning to the UK. I am deeply sorry if this sounds harsh under the circumstances, but I’m sure you appreciate that it is not just you who has been upset by events.

Yours truly,

Signora Vittoria McCourt

I look again at the photograph on the newspaper cutting. At the date. At my mother’s enraptured smile. But most of all, I am drawn to the young man with dark hair and a gap in his teeth that’s so identical to my own that it makes my breath catch in my throat.

Messy, Wonderful Us by Catherine Isaac is published by Simon & Schuster.

Grazia Book Club is a new Sunday series, where we'll share an extract from a book that we're obsessed with and that we think you'll love. You can share your thoughts on the book by using #GraziaBookClub.

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us