In memory of biologico

I am reading The Leopard at the moment, Don Fabrizio reminds me so much of my father, he’s almost a literary incarnation of him. It is just over three years ago since my father died. I wrote some of this at the time, and have added to it. We miss you biologico…

I was slightly surprised that my aunt was up so early. It was half past eight and she normally doesn’t surface until around ten. I was already awake, having a cup of tea and thinking about my father.
I had visited him the day before in hospital, gone straight from the airport and stayed for several hours, talking to him about everything from Bach to my children and football. He was, as my aunt had warned me, “closer to death than to life”. There were flashes of him, but mostly he just lay there, breathing heavily, eyes closed, moaning and now and again yelling “Ostia!”
So I chatted on. At one stage I told him that he’d been a wonderful father. It was the only time during the visit that he sat bolt upright and opened his eyes, as if in shock. After a second or two he lay back down and went back to his soporific state.
The fact that I didn’t see him between the ages of two and 12 might preclude him from the category of ‘really good dad’. Also his method of fathering would not meet with universal approval. To him the most important thing was that I could speak five languages and quote Dante. He didn’t really care if I ate my greens, did my homework or had casual sex.
I understood this very early on in our relationship. My mother and I had driven through Europe in her purple Ford Cortina in part to escape her violent husband but also so that I could meet my real father. We navigated with the help of the map in my Girl Guide diary. This had its disadvantages. At one stage, when we thought we are about to hit the Italian border, we saw a sign saying: ‘Welcome to Switzerland’. But we got to the Adriatic town of Rimini eventually where we had arranged to meet my father on the beach. We were early, or he was late, I no longer remember which. I went for a swim. When I came out I realised I was lost. Rimini beach was divided into numbered sections that all looked exactly the same. I was terrified I would never see my mother again, let alone meet my father. I started running on the beach, looking for something I recognised. Suddenly I felt two strong arms around me. I looked up into eyes that were shockingly similar to mine.24598_101777316529563_3127801_n

“Ciao bella,” said my father. “I recognised you by your legs.”
One of the first problems we had to deal with was what I should call him. ‘Daddy’ or the Italian ‘Babbo’ or ‘Papá’ seemed too intimate for a man I had last seen when I was a baby and had no memory of. His name, Benedetto, a little too formal and distant. As he said that first day, there was no denying I was his daughter. “You seem to have inherited my looks and your mother’s brains,” he said. “A most unfortunate outcome.” So we settled on Biologico.
My mother left to visit her parents in Sweden after a couple of days. We set off on a grand tour in his white convertible Mercedes with red leather seats. We went from Rimini to Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples. As a 12-year-old living in 1970’s England it was all impossibly exotic. I remember tasting the real flavour of tomatoes for the first time ever. I was also introduced to culture. My father was appalled at how little I knew.
“What do they teach Queen Elizabeth’s subjects at school?” he would yell as I failed to answer yet another basic question about opera, literature or art.
In Florence he sent me off with a Baedeker to discover Michelangelo.
“I loved the David,” I told him when I came back to his flat close to the Duomo.
“Which one did you see?”
“Is there more than one?”
“Oh yes, there are two. One in the Piazza della Signora, and another one in the museum.”
“What’s the difference?”
“The one in the piazza has an erection every Wednesday at 4 o’clock. The queues to see it go all the way to the Arno.”
Along with two Davids, he explained, in Italy there were also two truths. There was la verità and la verità vera. The truth and the real truth.
La verità vera was one of his key phrases, along with a lot of Italian swear words, used mainly when talking about me, and la grande amore, used mainly when talking about my mother.
“Whatever happened afterwards, you have to remember that you were born out of a grande amore,” he would say. “We were in my car in Capri with the roof down one day and the traffic came to a standstill as a class of schoolchildren crossed the road. They wove behind and in front of the car and we looked at each other and we just knew.”
“What would have happened, do you think, if you had stayed together?” I asked him.
“You would have grown up as a subject of the Republic of Italy, instead of a subject of Her Majesty the Queen. What a loss to Her Majesty!”
My aunt said his bravura was a defence mechanism. “He lost you once,” she told me. “He’s scared of losing you again.”
I’m not sure whether that was la verità or la verità vera. Biologico didn’t seem scared of anything. I had never met anyone with such confidence and charm.

It was difficult to believe that this man was my father. I had got so used to pretending a succession of stepfathers were the real thing. But here he was; the verità vera. I couldn’t stop looking at him, listening to his voice and examining his face. He really did look like me. Everyone had always told me I looked like my mother. But now I saw that they were wrong. I was the spitting image of this man I didn’t know.
I’m not sure how much better I knew him on his deathbed almost 40 years after that first summer. We had missed years, and a lot of mundanity, as I grew up. As a teenager and young adult he was relentlessly critical of me, desperate I see now for me to fulfil what he was sure was my potential. It was only when I was older and married with my own children that we became close.
If I had a problem I would call him and he would know immediately what the matter was before I said anything. His advice was always pragmatic, short and to the point. There was never any room for any “shitting sentimentality” as he called it. He abhorred sentimentality, especially in writing. I remember once when I was about 13 trying to write a short story. It came back with “shitting sentimentality” scrawled all over it. Looking back on the sorry tale about a young girl forced to marry an evil man called Rupert, he had a point.
When Biologico first became ill I was tempted to write down as many things as I could think of that might bother me in the future so I could store his answers to consult in times of trouble. Of course I never did. And by the time I got to his hospital bed it was too late.
In the same room as my father was a man my aunt called “il mostro”. He didn’t say much, but now and again he shouted out “mamma” to which his ever-present and ever-patient wife would adjust her housecoat and respond: “No dear, I’m not your mother, I’m your wife.” She repeated this with the same regularity that she repeated the phrase “let’s hope Napoli won”. I felt sorry for my father. Not only was he bed-ridden and in pain, but he had a couple of Naples fans next door. I could just imagine the abuse they would have received if he had been able to speak. My father was a Roma fan. He would sit on a wooden dining room chair and watch football matches on TV (I don’t think I ever saw him on a sofa) shouting at the players in the same way he would yell at politicians during the evening news.
“Biologico, this isn’t real,” I told him, whispering so the Neapolitans couldn’t hear me. “You’re not here. You’re at La Scala, in the Royal Box, we’re about to watch Don Giovanni and at the moment you’re reciting Dante to some beautiful unsuspecting woman. ‘Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria….’” There I had to stop, because even though he has recited this canto to me thousands of times, I couldn’t remember any more. I felt I had let him down. “You’ll have to finish it,” I told him. He looked at me and squeezed my hand.
“Let’s hope Napoli won,” said the monster’s wife.
When my aunt knocked on my door the day after the hospital visit I was pleased to see her. I had been meaning to ask her if we could take some nail scissors with us to the hospital to cut my father’s eyebrows? They were seriously unwieldy. He used to joke to my children that he shaved them off and sent them to his enemies. I figured we could pop them straight into an envelope and put them under il mostro‘s pillow. Thus ensuring Napoli would lose. I didn’t have a chance to mention the eyebrows though, before she hugged me and said “He’s dead. He waited to see you and then he died. If you want to know what love means, it is that.”
To be honest I still don’t really know how his death will affect me, because even though I have met countless people who keep telling me they’re sorry, and I’ve been to the funeral parlour and I’ve met the doctor who treated him and I’ve even seen his body, it just doesn’t seem real that he’s gone. Forever. That’s it. Finito Benito as my father would say. To me he just doesn’t seem to be gone.
He is now lying in state like Stalin (whom he once played in a film). Unlike the other dead there who all have pictures of themselves aged about 80, my father has adopted the columnist’s trick of using a picture from around 50 years ago. So instead of looking like some old codger, he looks like a cross between a young Richard Burton and a less gay Burt Lancaster.24238_108594169181211_1327112_n

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friends and relations are invited to come and pay their respects until tomorrow when he will be driven to the crematorium in Ravenna. When the funeral director told my aunt that was where he would be cremated she told him that her brother would be so pleased, because it was the capital of the Western Roman Empire from 402 to 476. The funeral director nodded.

“Take a card,” he said, I suspect in an effort to change the subject.
“I’d prefer not to,” said my aunt.
I am on my way to England where I have the difficult task of breaking the news to my three children. The girls especially were really close to him, they loved his zany ways and imagination. No one could make them laugh like he could. I’m pleased the last time they saw him he was sitting on a rock in a beautiful garden close to Rome reciting Dante.
In life as in death my father did exactly as he wanted. I even believe he decided when to die. He has one last act of rebellion to come. We forgot to bring his underwear to the hospital. So although he is dressed in his Sunday best, he’ll be heading to the crematorium commando.
Biologico wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

What’s with all the beards?

As if this year hasn’t been traumatic enough.
Not only have we had the shock of Donald Trump being elected president, the Brexit vote and David Bowie dying. We have men with beards. Beards are everywhere, they are ubiquitous, they are trendy, they are the latest must-have accessory. Beards are, in fact, the new black. Or orange, as with Prince Harry, who I think has a lot to answer for when it comes to the proliferation of facial hair everywhere.
Glamour Magazine’s top 100 Sexiest Men of 2016 contains more than a smattering of Beardy Brits. Topping the list is Kit Harrington of Game of Thrones fame in at number 33; everyone’s favourite David Beckham is unshaven at number 38. Also in the top 100 are Craig David, Prince Harry, Gerald Butler and Rufus Sewell. Even Harry Potter (aka Daniel Radcliffe) has a beard.
A few years ago you really only saw beards on men steering canal boats or mad professors. The kind of people who would also wear socks with sandals. They were not considered sexy. Beards were not ever associated with anyone remotely attractive. With the possible exception of George Best, and even he would have looked better without one.Manchester-United-Football-Club-season-1972-73-George-Best
Now anyone who is anyone just has to be hirsute. Going back to the Glamour mag list the actor Idris Elba who is number 29 is sporting a dappled grey beard, Tom Hardy at number 19 is looking slightly jowly with his facial hair, the model David Gandy is at number 17 with a suitably tailored one and Harry Styles at number 12 is desperately trying to get in on the beard look by sporting a bit of fluff that makes him look even more like a 13-year-old trying to look 18 than he already does.
Where did it all go wrong?
One theory I have is that in this metrosexual age men are trying desperately trying to prove their masculinity. Studies have shown that women perceive men with beards as stronger and more aggressive. So in this politically correct era where men are often vilified for being just that, this is one way to show off the masculinity they otherwise have to keep hidden.
Facial hair is also linked to finding a mate. So rather like male birds show off their plumage and hop around on one leg in order to attract a partner, men grow beards to pull. A study of facial hair fashions between 1842 and 1971 by the aptly named researcher Nigel Barber concluded that the predominance of beards is directly linked to the ratio of men to women in the marriage market. Beards and moustaches become more popular when the ratio of women to men is lower.
A friend of mine called Paul Rodgers has sported a beard for four years. He is now so fed up with everyone else doing the same that he’s thinking of getting rid of his. He first grew one because it gives his face definition. I always thought it was a lazy thing. I mean it must get rather boring shaving every day. Apparently not. “I didn’t grow one to avoid shaving,” he tells me. “I still shave every day, and trim my beard every two to three days.”
And herein lies one of the big differences between beards back in the 60s and beards now. Whereas then they were allowed to flow as freely as the drugs and love, now they are trimmed, oiled, shaped and groomed to within an inch of their lives.
Look at David Gandy for example. That beard has not just grown like that. No, it’s been more neatly manicured than a lawn in suburban Surrey. At the far end of the scale we have (thankfully increasingly less) the goatee, which in my opinion just means someone lacks personality and is trying to make themselves look interesting. It screams ‘hey look how zany I am when it comes to my facial hair, just imagine how cool and fun I can be’. It’s rather like a banker wearing bright red glasses. You’re not cool, or fun and added to which you have ridiculous facial hair that makes you look like a pervert.
Bring back the dapper stars from the 1950s I say. Would James Dean still be remembered as one of the most handsome men ever if he’d had a beard? Would Audrey Hepburn have fallen in love with a Simeon Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday? I don’t think so.
I’m not sure what 2017 holds in store. More beards I suppose, as I can’t see this hirsute trend going away any time soon. Pretty soon Donald Trump will be wearing a ginger wig on his chin as well as his head.

Christmas scene from The Arnolfini Marriage

To celebrate Christmas, here is a seasonal scene from my latest book. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all 

 

Chapter Seventeen

Summertown, Oxford
December 1995

Summertown is a little like a village in its own right. Residents talk about going ‘into town’ when they go into Oxford, as if they don’t actually live in Oxford at all. I suppose once it probably was a village, a couple of miles from Oxford. Although why they called it Summertown I can’t understand. It’s not a town and it never seems to be summer, but maybe it’s a bit like Greenland, which was so-called to sound nicer than Iceland, whereas in reality the climate is so much worse.
Anyway it is no surprise that we have our own Christmas-tree lighting ceremony, where two large conifers on the main drag are lit, usually in contrasting colours such as one in red and the other in blue. There is always a brass band and a children’s choir from St James’s, the local primary school. The ceremony today is at 7pm and at ten to I am struggling to get the boys into their jackets, gloves on strings, hats and boots. During winter just going outside is a major operation, with all the paraphernalia they need.
“William, are you coming with us?” I ask as he passes me on his way to his studio.
“Where?”
“The Christmas tree lighting, on the Banbury Road.”
“No thanks, you can keep your middle-class traditions,” he hisses and stomps up the stairs. He really has been unusually grumpy recently, which is odd, as he has even sold some paintings. I’m looking forward to being able to put more in the boys’ stockings this year than a Brazil nut and a clementine.
“OK, we’ll go ahead then,” I smile. Nothing is going to spoil my Christmas cheer.
The boys and I arrive at the trees around the same time as the brass band. There is already a crowd gathered, and the choir is ready to sing, dressed in the red and white school uniforms and carrying songbooks. At the moment though there is Christmas music coming from the amplifier, I recognise Frank Sinatra’s voice. In fact I think my mother has this album.url
It is a crisp, cold evening. The stars are already up, adding to the feeling of Christmas magic, and there is a feeling of snow in the air. We stop as equidistant as we can in between the two trees. I know Eddie will want to be closer to whichever one is blue, if indeed one of them is going to be blue. The colour of the trees is a closely guarded secret, only the sponsors know what combination we will be looking at for the next few weeks.
Frank is suddenly interrupted mid-sentence and a woman takes the mike. I think I’m supposed to know who she is, but I have no idea. She is dressed in a suit that looks much too big for her and sounds very bossy; maybe she’s the headmistress of the school.
I zone out slightly and look around. Most people have a ruddy-cheeked expectant air about them. Opposite me there is a young family; the mother is carrying a tiny baby in a Baby Björn and the father is balancing a toddler on his shoulders. He has one arm around the mother. They look blissfully happy; it must be the baby’s first Christmas. I can imagine the excitement and the preparations going on at home; there is nothing as intimate as those early months, the feeling of being a family, the togetherness, almost like you’re alone in the world, like you don’t need anyone else. It occurs me as I look at them that we didn’t ever have that closeness. William was resentful that I was pregnant and he never seemed to get over that feeling, so there was really never a time when we felt complete as a family. He was always angry and I was always nervous about making him angrier.
Next to the model family are a couple of teenage girls clearly looking around for some boys they have arranged to meet there. The choir starts signing Away in a manger. I always remember my father telling me to pronounce the word ‘little’ with an almost silent ‘t’. The ‘littel’ Lord Jesus sings the St James choir, oblivious to my neurosis. Both boys are transfixed by the singing. I continue to scan the audience as Away in a manger comes to an end.

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The choir has just started on Once in Royal David’s City when I spot him. He is standing on the other side of the choir to us, wearing a dark coat, scarf and hat. But even in the get-up I recognise Kit. I think he could be wearing a full burka and I’d still know those eyes, even in the half-light we’re in now. Of course as soon as I catch his eye, I know for sure. I get a feeling in the pit of my stomach that hovers between excitement, lust and fear. With a little bit of confusion thrown in, because what the hell is he doing at the Summertown Christmas tree lighting ceremony? And what do I do now? I can’t acknowledge him in front of the boys. What would I do if William were here with us? Kit smiles at me and nods a hello as the choir sings ‘he came down to earth from heaven’ and I nod and smile back. Our eyes convey countless messages over the singing crowd. The fact that he will see the boys suddenly strikes me, and for some reason it makes me inordinately happy. We keep our distance though, just glancing at each other every few seconds. It is lovely to have him there. I last saw him over a week ago when I managed to escape from school at lunchtime with the excuse of a dentist’s appointment. My whole body yearns to touch him now but instead I sing the carol and squeeze my toes in frustration.
At the end of Once in Royal David’s City the badly-dressed bossy boots is back and it’s time to light the trees.
“Now then…. can you all help me to count backwards from 10?” she says in her irritating sing-song voice.
“I think we can just about manage that,” I mutter to no one in particular.
She raises her arm and obediently we all start counting.
“Why is everyone counting the wrong way?” asks Eddie.
“It’s called a countdown,” I explain. “When we get to nought the Christmas tree lights will go on.”
I glance over at Kit who is looking up at the sky. I follow his gaze; the sky is deep blue-black, the stars in sharp contrast. There is Orion, looking majestic.
“Nought,” says Miss Bossy-Boots and the lights on the trees come to life; one gold and the other silver.
“Where’s the blue one?” wails Eddie.
“Pretty,” says Tom, kicking his legs enthusiastically.
We all stand in the glow of the Christmas trees for a few moments and breathe in the feeling of Christmas. I glance over at Kit who gives me a little wave and a wink before walking off towards town.
“Come on boys,” I say, watching the clouds suddenly roll in, looking extremely ominous. “Let’s go home and have some dinner.”
Eddie seems to have got over the lack of a blue tree. “Can we have mashed potato?”
“Yes darling,” I say, with one last look in the direction Kit went off before turning for home. “Of course we can.”
“Snow, snow,” shrieks Tom as tiny white flakes start to fall into his lap.
I look up to see the snow falling from the sky like minuscule weightless stars.

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You can order The Arnolfini Marriage on Amazon kindle https://goo.gl/g81A1m

Latest novel out today….

painting

Inspired by the mysterious, eponymous portrait by Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Marriage is the story of a couple falling in love as they research the truth behind the painting. A kind of One Day for grown-ups, the love affair between Victoria and Christopher, played out over two decades, is both tragic and redeeming, and always somehow intertwined with the mysterious painting that brought them together.

You can order your copy here: https://goo.gl/g81A1m

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Summertown sadness

imagesAn email from the school headed ‘important news – please read urgently’ was the first I heard about the hideous events of last Wednesday.
It went on to say that there had been a serious sexual assault in the Summertown area at 8.30am “involving a student wearing school uniform.” It advised parents to accompany children to school.
As we walked Bea to school we still had no idea of the enormity of the crime. A “serious sexual assault” is of course just that, but it could mean any number of things.
Not for a moment did we imagine that what had actually happened was that a 14 year-old girl on her way to school had been abducted from one of the busiest street corners in Oxford, thrown into a van, driven to some nearby woodland where she was subjected to a three-hour sexual assault and then dumped a mile away from where she was picked up.
The crime is shocking on so many levels. This was not a girl walking home at 2am alone. Not that that’s an excuse to rape someone. This was a girl on her way to school at 8.30 in the morning. Of course awful things happen during the day as well as the night, but the fact that these people were so brazen they picked on someone in the middle of rush hour just makes you wonder if anyone is ever safe. Hundreds of children walk down that road to schools. I wouldn’t have thought twice about letting Bea and Olivia walk alone there aged 14.
The victim was abducted on the corner of Banbury Road and Marston Ferry Road. It’s about five minutes from our house. Bea walks there every day on her way to school. (Incidentally the girl was not from Cherwell School where Bea is, but from another one nearby.) The corner is just at the end of the shopping bit of Summertown with its Marks & Spencers, Gail’s Bakery, Farrow & Ball, numerous charity shops and Oliver Bonas. It reminds me of the nicest part of Hampstead, but it’s even better, because it’s in Oxford with its fresh air and surrounding countryside, and not London.
If Inspector Morse were investigating this case, he’d say that daylight abduction and rape of minors just doesn’t happen in Summertown. Even the name has a kind of innocence to it.
Sadly this innocence has now been eroded. Bea’s school-friends can talk of little else (many of them know the girl it happened to), no one will stand on that corner again and be able to stop themselves thinking about the moment that poor girl was apparently bear-hugged to make it look like she knew her kidnappers and bundled into the car to God knows what kind of ordeal. I heard from one of Bea’s friends that she managed to text her mother to say she’d been abducted. So for the hours between the kidnapping and when she was found in a traumatic state frantically knocking on doors she was a “missing person”.
This was such an evil crime. I can’t imagine how the victim and her family are coping or dealing with it. Everyone around here is so shocked and saddened. Summertown will take a long time to recover, people will never ever forget last Wednesday.
I can only hope the poor girl it happened to can in some way get over it. And that they catch the bastards who did this.

Anyone for golf?

It was while I was explaining to a French friend the rules of public school exeats that it hit me.
“Term starts on September 6th,” I told her. “And then he’s not allowed out again until September 29th. I can go and watch him play in matches though.”
“Are you allowed to speak to him?” she asked.
At the time it made me laugh. But then I realised that at best I will be able to hug him and say hello before he vanishes off with his new friends.
The closer we get to the beginning of term, the more I dread it.
It’s not that I am unused to my son boarding. He has been at boarding school since he was 10 years old. But for the last two years he has been at a small prep school 15 minutes away from our home. I saw him for matches twice a week. At weekends, thanks to local cricket training, he was always at home. So in effect he was a weekly boarder, which I always thought combined the best of both worlds.
Big school though is a totally different thing. I say goodbye to him early September and that really is it. He’s allowed his phone between 9pm and 9.45pm every day. But if past experience is anything to go on he might call me once a week at best. He will be fine; this is what he wants. Don’t think I haven’t tried to convince him to become a dayboy at a local school. He won’t miss me but I will miss him, and my only chance of seeing him before the month is out is to make a two-hour round trip to catch a glimpse of him pitch-side.
“Come September I’ll have to get a Labrador or a toy-boy,” I joked to another mother at the New Boys’ tea.
“Oh don’t get a Labrador,” she advised, “they’re terribly hard work.”
I’m not sure how my husband would feel about the toy boy. But the good news is that he doesn’t need any kind of child substitute. “I feel rather liberated,” he told me when I said I was worried about the prospect of our three children growing up.4ee03e799eb25e20c9b5e37b9785d16c

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t feel liberated. I feel slightly panicked. The girls of course will still be at home but at the age of 17 and 15 they hardly need me at all. I am a combination of a cashpoint and washerwoman, and that’s about it. Of course I have my work, but if I’m honest my weeks have been dominated by whatever sport Leo is competing in, or training for. Home matches against local rivals were highlights of the term. Collecting him every Saturday has been something to look forward to. Having him home was always a treat. Driving him to cricket training, watching him play, washing his kit, in short just being part of his life.
Of course I will still be a part of his life, but from September 4th I am no longer at the centre of it. I am no longer involved on a daily basis, no longer privy to the highs and lows. I might not know what’s going on with him from one week to the next. Of course no news is good news when it comes to children at boarding school, but it can feel quite gloomy when you’re at home waiting for the phone to ring like some has-been actor waiting for their agent to call or an Olympic athlete on their way home with only retirement looming.
It’s now mid-August. I still have another couple of weeks until I have to hand him over. My husband has suggested that come September, rather than go for the Labrador or the toy-boy, I should take up golf.
I don’t think things are quite that bad.