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.
“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.
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.