Daddy, how could you walk out on my wedding?
She stopped talking to him ten years ago after he strode out of her wedding.
The past few years I have been so focused on my career that family has not always been my priority. Now I realise how important they all are.
I wonder if the new-found Italian-ness I’ve discovered during a trip to Florence to research my new book will stay with me. There’s only one way to find out: I must go back to where it all began – Rimini.
This time I’m taking my son, Leonardo, with me. We stay with my stylish aunt, Piera – my father’s sister — and on the first morning I decide to go down to the sea for a walk with Leonardo.
I am longing to see the beach at Rimini again. It’s where I was reunited with my father when I was 14. But today the sea looks cold and uninviting, and everything is shrouded in mist.
Spooked, I strain my eyes to see. Something is moving towards me. Something black. But it doesn’t look like a bird. It has no wings. As it comes closer, I recognise it: it’s a 1920s hat.
The rest of the figure is shrouded in fog. It is only when he is less than a metre away that I am sure it’s him.
“I recognised you by your hat,” I say. My father laughs and holds me close. “Ciao bella. My sister told me I would find you here,’ he says.
“This is the last of the Benedettis,” I tell him, pointing at Leonardo. My father leans down and grabs Leonardo’s cheek.
“Ciao bello,” he says.
“Why did you storm out of my wedding?” I ask. We are now in the Grand Hotel drinking tea. We haven’t spoken for ten years.
“Weddings are so conventional,” he says. “Don’t be so bourgeois.”
“Whenever you want to justify your bad behaviour, you say that to criticise it is bourgeois,” I say.
“It was not nice of you to storm out. It’s not as if no one noticed. You were meant to walk me up the aisle.”
All the way to the hotel I have had my arm in his. He is still a good-looking man. I know from my mother he is 81, but he looks about 60.
My father tries to explain to Leonardo who he is. “I am your mother’s father,” he tells him. “Me, daddy, to your mummy.”
Leonardo looks confused and calls him daddy. “No, he’s your grandfather,” I tell him.
My father grabs my arm. “Never say that,” he says. “Teach him to call me uncle or something. Being a grandfather obliges you to be older than someone.”
I know I am going to have to ask him a question but I don’t know if I want to know the answer. I once found a newspaper cutting in my mother’s bedroom that was all about some Italian film director flying to England 22 times to see his daughter.
But it was only after I saw my mother’s name in it that I realised it was about me. I also had a vague memory of someone coming to find me at playschool and my mother dragging me away.
I thought it was a dangerous man I should be scared of.
“Why did you give up trying to see me when I was a child?”
“Your mother made things very difficult,” he says. “She sent me a letter severing all links. Also, when you moved, I had no idea how to find you. You had a different surname, given to you by that fool she left me for.”
“What did she say when she left you for my stepfather?” My father laughed. “She left a note saying “Gone fishing”.”
“And you think that’s funny?” I ask. It annoys me he can laugh about it.
“Listen, bella,” he says. “The important thing to remember is not that I didn’t stay at your wedding, which by the way was because your mother annoyed me, but that you were born from a grande amore and a great desire.
“One day I took your mother to the sea in my convertible car. On the way to the beach we were caught in a gaggle of schoolchildren.
“We were stuck as if in a traffic jam, but instead of cars we could hear little voices jabbering away. We looked at each other and we both knew we wanted to have a baby. So you must remember you were not born by chance.
“And do not dwell on the past and the mistakes made or not made. Think what a miracle it is that we’re here; you, me and your son.”
I wonder why I’m so drawn to him. He’s hardly been a good father in the traditional sense.
Here is a man who practically gave up on me as a child, then when he found me did nothing but shout at me, stormed out of my wedding and is only now beginning to be nice to me.
In fact, the last time I saw him, apart from the day before my wedding, he was dreadful. It was my first Christmas with Rupert and his children, Hugo and Julia, who were then four and two.
I was really looking forward to it.
The children and I decorated the tree together, we wrapped up presents, went shopping for all the food. I was excited about my father coming to stay. I wanted him to see the England I loved.
And where better than an aristocrat’s farmhouse set deep in the Sussex countryside with views over green rolling hills?
The first night, I cooked Pasta Siciliana (penne with a tomato, parmesan and aubergine sauce).
“In Italy, you could be sent to prison for serving this,” was my father’s comment as he pushed his plate aside.
On Christmas Day we all got dressed up to go for lunch with Rupert’s parents. I was wearing a beige cashmere skirt suit I had had made at great expense by a designer friend of mine.
As we took our seats for a glass of champagne, my father turned to me and said in Italian: “What assassin made that suit? It looks terrible on you, makes your bottom look too low.”
I was devastated. I hated the idea of looking terrible, of course, but also the fact that he’d been so cruel.
When we got home after lunch, the antique oil-fired heating system had broken. There was no one around we could get to fix it so we had no hot water or heating, and it was freezing.
My father spent the next three days in bed, in his hat and coat, covered in blankets.
Thankfully, on the third day, my mother arrived.
She made the whole Christmas experience a good one by being lovely about the house, the children, us and generally helping all the time.
So I can’t say I missed my father once he’d gone.
In fact, I wondered at the time whether I’d bother to see him again. But something has changed.
My father phones on the day Leonardo and I are flying home and says he will join us for breakfast. “I want to say goodbye to you again,” he says.
This surprises me. It’s the first time he has ever shown any signs of not wanting me to leave. I am as happy as a schoolgirl in love by the time he arrives at the café where we are meeting.
“You’re so lucky to have a father like me,” he says, pinching my cheek. “In fact, I’m lucky to have a daughter like you,” he adds. “To be honest, I never expected it.”
“Why?” I ask him. “Because I thought your mother would ruin you. She did everything she could, but she failed. You’re just like me.”
He’s wrong; I’m not just like him. But I am lucky to have a father like him. He may not be the most conventional of parents, but he’s taught me much more than a traditional father would have.
Maybe not about how to drive a car and other practicalities, but about myself and how I should live. He has encouraged (almost bullied) me to write.
Nowadays, he is always there if I need him. Some may say it’s a bit late, but I don’t agree. And for all his faults, he’s never short of a napkin, which is essential for someone like me who always forgets to bring a handkerchief with her.
• Extracted from Ciao Bella: In Search Of My Italian Father by Helena Frith Powell, published by Gibson Square Books at £14.99. © 2006, Helena Frith Powell.
To order a copy (p&p free) call 0870 161 0870.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group. She writes a beauty blog www.beautyorbeast.uk.
Her third novel, The Arnolfini Marriage, based on a romance that evolves around a van Eyck masterpiece came out in 2016. As well as contributing regularly for newspapers and magazines, writing short stories and studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Cambridge, Helena is also working on a thriller called Welcome to Smullö that will be published in spring 2020.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and came out in paperback in April 2018.
Helena was educated at Durham University and lived in the Languedoc region of France for eight years, where the family still have a home. She lives between there and London with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019