My father’s story begins with his arrival in England around 1963. He came, via Germany, from Italy. There was no dolce vita in Ancona – a strategic port in the Adriatic that had been bombed by both sides. Poverty and compulsory military service have a lot to do with my father’s flight from his native country. It’s a long time ago, he will say, and it was a long time before he was able to return without being rounded up by the army. So he had enough reasons to leave and stay left, and he does recall arriving in England, which, like the past, held no interest for him. As far as he is concerned, he arrived in London in 1963, looking for work. He had difficulties, in that he was undernourished, and had no real grip on the English language. But he could play an accordion and had a clutch of good, lightweight cotton, tight-fitting suits. He was dark, handsome and fashionably clad, though London had not yet woken up to his Italian style. The classic stranger in town, he was a man of few words. I don’t know how he did it, but he found work as a waiter at Heathrow Airport.
My father always had itchy feet. He wanted them to take him to America. There was a charismatic, dynamic young man in charge of the Free World. Italy was dead in the doldrums, England was still emerging, America was where he wanted to be. The death of old Europe had sickened him but Italians were not welcome in America, and only England would let him in. So it would have to do. He put up with the sneering references to Italian cowardice, incompetence and capitulation to rampant Fascism by keeping his mouth shut. Inside he was raging. One day he waited on a band of young men called the Rolling Stones who were en route to a gig abroad. They were surrounded by beautiful young women. This impressed my father. He decided that Heathrow Airport, England’s answer to continental travel, was not enough for him. He was a good, solicitous waiter and he carried himself with dignity. He had some money from tips. Although he was unskilled and uneducated, he had a vision of where he wanted to be – somewhere that suited his unflappable style. Through the informal network of Italian immigrants who always give compatriots a helping hand, he found his way to the 2Is Cafe in Soho. My Italian father met my English mother in a cafe owned by two Italians but that was better known as the home of English rock’n’roll.
In the 1960s, Soho attracted the unquenchably curious, the go-getters and trend-setters although you’d never guess it. It was dark, grimy and the drains stank. The mostly Georgian buildings were derelict and it was only the energy of their inhabitants that kept them standing. Greta worked as a bilingual secretary for a film company on Wardour Street, the power base of the British film industry. Greta loved the contact with foreign cultures and languages and she skipped over the smelly drains. As a teenager, she had insisted on attending the French Lycee in South Kensington where she had received a diploma in French and Spanish. Like Soho, South Ken was deliciously foreign: a rare enclave of French aloofness. She and her college friends gathered in bistros and dressed in black. She ate cheese from La Cave aux Fromages; she drank St Emilion claret and assumed that faraway look in the eyes that indicated an Existentialist approach to life. It suited her. She was graceful and clever and poised. She, too, had itchy feet. After the Lycee she took a job as an air hostess, travelling and living abroad, testing her multi-lingual skills on, and being disappointed by, foreign men. There had been a Greek Cypriot called Andreas, the son of the Lebanese ambassador to Paris, and Pepe the Spaniard. She always left them before they could leave her (usually on a BOAC jumbo jet); leaving them was her insurance policy. Another protective strategy she deployed was to keep her boyfriends away from her English family. In fact, she kept herself away from her English family. They lived in a mansion house in Kensington that doubled as an illegal gaming club.
Greta, my mother, was an intrepid, shy and intellectually inclined woman who rebelled against the English mistrust of all things foreign. She loved French cinema and literature, she listened to Juliet Greco and Edith Piaf. She shared a flat in Earls Court with an Australian girl and she was at home in the heart of cosmopolitan Soho. Just as Thomas de Quincy had once roamed its streets looking for his Ann, and never finding her, Greta sought a something or someone who always seemed to be just around the corner, barely glimpsed before evaporating into an unlit stairwell. Soho’s cosmopolitan flavour satisfied the tastes Greta had acquired on her travels. She could smell the Mediterranean sardines resting on blocks of ice outside Richard’s Fishmonger on Brewer Street. She got her morning croissant from Madame Val’s. She took her lunch break at the Torino cafe run by Mr and Mrs Minella on the corner of Old Compton Street and Dean Street. Vol au vents were one shilling and sixpence or you could have one on tick if you were a regular. Greta always had the money. She worked hard for it. By night, she moonlit as a waitress at the 2Is Cafe on Old Compton Street, just down from the Torino and round the corner from her office.
This was the early 1960s so I imagine that scooters were parked outside the railings of the old Georgian house. A picture of the 2Is shows a neon sign in the first floor window pointing the way to the basement. Pino went down the stairs and found a little, brown and orange café with a scruffy piano and a stage. The decor consisted of linoleum flooring, Formica tables and the twisting patterns made by dancing couples fuelled by live blues, jazz, calypso and pop. In the midst of the hustle and skiffle, Greta stuck to her station behind the bar and served frothy coffees from the Gaggia machine. She laughed and bantered with the starry clientele – George Melly, Millicent Martin, Barbara Windsor. The 2Is was the height of early Sixties hipness. But she was conscientious and a little afraid of being carried away by the irreverence and spontaneity of her peers. She kept serving cups of milky-thick coffee loaded with heavy-duty caffeine such as the English had never experienced. Pino had not seen a Gaggia machine since leaving Italy. Balancing the cups under its siphons was Greta, aged 32, petite and pretty with a strawberry-blonde beehive. She had hazel eyes and delicate cheekbones, and maintained an air of detachment in her demure office clothes. She had a look that resounded with Pino: a starched cotton blouse tucked into a pencil skirt; hints of blowziness bounded by upholstered underwear. The outer layers spoke to him of provincial, out-of-date, out-of-the way, weary but, underneath it all, resilient Italy.
He felt at home here in Soho. He liked the skiffle. When Greta had her break, he asked her to dance.
Prior to my father’s arrival in England, bookmakers organised illegal betting for punters on the street. They were shifty characters who were hyper-vigilant – one eye out for the law – and quick-witted – always ready with a get-out clause. They were quick to take bets, calculate the odds, count the money, and scarper. They had a speed that was irresistible, unstoppable, and ultimately, made them elusive. Turf Accountants arranged bets for the wealthy in a more leisurely manner over the telephone. Private gaming clubs carried out their business at exclusive addresses such as the one Greta’s family occupied. In 1960 a Jewish-American gangster called Meyer Lansky came to London. Lansky was later portrayed as Hyman Roth in Godfather II. He was a major figure in the American mafia – bigger than US steel. Gambling was illegal in the UK, and there were no casinos. Lansky set to work straightening out the cops at Scotland Yard, who didn’t know what had hit them and were certainly not given time to think it through. He organised lobbying of government ministers. Money and favours exchanged hands in such a brisk and business-like way that no one felt compromised by their personal profit. It was for the good of the country. They were creating opportunities for entrepreneurs, legalising what was already taking place anyway, and earning tax on it for the Revenue. Gaming laws favourable to Lansky and his Mafia associates were enacted in 1963, just in time for Pino who still had not found his métier. Through my mother, he had a stroke of luck.
My father loved my mother but his greatest love was gambling. He was a repressed and silent man who did not realise how unhappy he was. His silence prevented him from knowing himself. A long time ago, he had terminated contact with his feelings, and relied on surges of adrenalin, dopamine and norepinephrine to remind himself that he was alive. Daily life maintained the numbness inside him. The surges he was hooked on occurred at night-time, when he had a winning card in the palm of his hand, or a line of cocaine hitting his bloodstream. His life was in his hands in these moments; he craved these moments – he enjoyed the infusion of power they brought him. Besides this, he had found his home at last. He had digs in North Kensington and he worked as a club barman in Mayfair but the only places he really belonged were the gambling joints he frequented after work. The Mint on Kilburn Road, close to his bedsit in North Ken, was his Mecca. There is no sure-fire way to peace. Peace is the way. In between the hits, Pino experienced peace when playing poker and he experience a living death, which is another kind of peace, when he wasn’t. To his poker pals, he looked the part – silent, confident, at peace with himself and his hand. No one got past his poker face. He was irresistible to Greta. His silence was a challenge. She liked impenetrable books written in foreign languages. She liked Proust, who was voluble and resounded with profound depths, and she liked Pino who was not voluble, but whom she concluded had hidden depths. She wanted to protect him from the bigots in her country. She was a rebel and she wanted a baby. These conflicting impulses led her to my father, who had another attractive quality. He exuded a sense of control.
The most important skill a player needs to manage isn’t arithmetic or reading opponents, it isn’t a good starting hand selection, it isn’t a solid game plan, it’s self-control. Pino knew that it doesn’t do you any good at all if you play above your bankroll. If you do, you get into debt to gangsters. He wasn’t going to let anyone have the upper hand on him. He knew his limits. He also knew that it was no good playing after the point his play deteriorated. He used his nights and his cocaine judiciously. He knew when to call it a day. Poker isn’t just a game of the moment. When you deal with regular opponents, you should be setting the groundwork for strategic plays minutes, hours and even months before you pull the trigger on them. Pino got to know the other players; they were locals, some compatriots, some Irish, some hoods. He watched them and he maintained his discipline. All other poker skills, tactics and strategies run through discipline. Every element of winning strategy must be applied or it is worthless. No other knowledge matters if you don’t practice self-discipline and use what you know. There is no way to discipline. Discipline is the way. Pino knew this.
His lucky break came when he got Greta pregnant, and married her. The marriage itself was a civil ceremony. It took place at Marylebone Town Hall, and my parents’ approach to it was matter of fact. They got married, had a reception at the house in Kensington, my mother’s family attended, my father’s sister, Stefania, arrived from Italy. Greta’s step-father found Stefania work as a cleaner. She did not respond graciously. Her resentment of her employers’ lives of luxury got the better of her and she made a habit of stealing small pieces of jewellery. The main business of life for Stefania and Pino was making good their losses and earning money. They had both been orphaned at an early age and had experienced bitter poverty.
Like my mother, they had never known their father. My parents’ marriage certificate speaks of the loss of not having had a father, and the shame of illegitimacy. These paternal absences had to be covered with lies. What is extraordinary to me – the child of a more therapeutically inclined generation – is that they did not tell each other the truth. If they had, they would have appreciated that they had found the exact mirror image of lost and frightened children in each other. Perhaps it was the defensive fronts they presented to the world that drew them to each other. Greta was the image of correctness; Pino of control. On his marriage certificate, my father recorded his father as being “Tomado Pizzichini (deceased); an airline pilot”. My mother recorded hers as “George Kingham (deceased); a policeman”. Pizzichini was my paternal grandmother’s maiden name; Kingham was my maternal grandmother’s maiden name. There was no airline pilot. There was no policeman. These were necessary lies, a shameful cover-up and a painful fraud that hurt no one but themselves and me, because what is repressed returns: in this case, shame and guilt, loss and absence.
At any rate, life goes on, and it’s a struggle, but loss can make you resourceful, and there are always father substitutes. When Pino met Greta’s step-father, Charlie Taylor, he met a con man, fixer and fraudster committed to furthering the cause of his children. He welcomed Pino to his world because Pino was a fellow player. Charlie knew who to corrupt at the Yard and in government. He knew who liked to gamble, and the connections he made had helped smooth the way for Lansky’s negotiations. As a result, Lansky smoothed the way for Charlie’s new son-in-law.
Lansky had come to London with Angelo Bruno, the Philadelphia Don, Sam Giancana, the boss of Chicago, and Dino Cellini, the “Stubensville Mechanic”. Lansky had had a good run of luck in Las Vegas and Cuba, but Cuban politics had got the better of him and the FBI were investigating his concerns in Vegas. He was looking for new territories in which to gamble. Cellini had been working the Cleveland gambling scene since the 1940s. He was connected to the Cleveland Mafia, who had received a large return for their $14million investment in Lansky’s casinos in Cuba. It was Cellini who had made sure they did. He was an old hand and it was his job to find croupiers for Lansky’s new casinos.
In 1963 he set up a croupiers’ school in a room above Fred Selby’s restaurant in Hanover Square. European croupiers were not adept at the American game of craps. To this end, a huge New York-style craps table was installed, dominating one entire alcove of the school’s floor. The students were taught the complexities of the game. For example, there is a five percent vig on the buy bets. The vig, or the vigorish, also known as the juice or the take, is the amount charged by the bookmaker, or in this instance, dealer, for his services. On a buy bet you pay a five percent vig upfront in exchange for receiving a true payoff if the bet wins. The vig is calculated on the amount wagered. For example, if a punter wanted to make a £20 buy bet on the number four, he would put down £21 in the Come area and tell the dealer, “Buy the four”. The dealer would move £20 to the number four point box and place a buy button on top of it. The extra £1 was the vig for the house. The result for the punter was that he won £40 (two to one). Two base dealers were positioned at opposite ends of the table, along with a taut string stretched across the middle of the layout which the dice had to cross to be called a roll. My father practised rolling for several weeks. In crossing this line, he was no longer one of the punters, he was a professional. He was on the side of the house, the keepers of the vig, the real winners of the game, which was where he had always wanted to be.
The croupiers’ finishing school in London cost Lansky $250,000 – an appreciable sum for those days. Cellini was headmaster and his principal tutors were Bobby and Freddy Ayoub who were of Lebanese-American descent and two of the most proficient dice dealers to come out of the Steubenville casinos. They were to go on to operate dealers’ schools in Las Vegas and New York as well as casinos in Amsterdam and Yugoslavia until the Balkan wars broke out in 1991. My father would work for them until that time. But for now, the skilled and proficient croupiers the Ayoub brothers turned out were dealing in 1960s glamour. They either went to work in Cellini’s Colony Club on Berkley Square, where the American actor George Raft was installed as Maitre D’, or to El Casino in Freeport, Grand Bahama. I was three months old when my father graduated from Casino School. It was August 1965. He was one of one hundred croupiers sent to Lansky’s flagship casino in Freeport. He left me with my mother who was living with her family in their Kensington mansion. Although he had not forgotten us, England, London, and The Mint on Kilburn Road, were behind him.
In 1995 I visited my father on the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten, in the Netherland Antilles. I had not seen him for ten years. I was thirty years old and a journalist. He was manager of a casino in Maho Bay, on the main tourist drag of the island. Sint Maarten, or Saint Martin, is half-Dutch and half-French. My father occupied the Dutch side. Although I recognised him as soon as I saw him, I had to concede, after a three-week stay, that I did not know the man. I had tried to get to know him. I had asked the questions a journalist would ask. I asked him who owned the casino. He told me the owners were two Sicilians. We looked at each other as he said this and then we looked away.
Ten years later, I was forty and my career as a freelance journalist was over. I was living in fear of losing my home. I had run out of ways of writing myself out of the mess I kept finding myself in.
So I found myself a job in a prison. I had a new home. It felt more familiar, and closer to my heart than journalism had ever done. I felt warm again. But I still had something left on the table. Those two Sicilians were playing on my mind. I looked up the owners of the casino where my father worked. I found that one of these Sicilians was a man called Rosario Spadaro. I dug a little deeper and discovered that the Italian police had been conducting an investigation into the Sicilian Mafia’s involvement in the Caribbean. They had focused specifically on Sint Maarten. As a result of their investigations, Rosario Spadaro was arrested on charges of money laundering and charged with being a part of a criminal organisation.
The investigation conducted by the Italian police was entitled “Game of Chance”. According to their report, Spadaro, who is from Messina, Sicily, was the Caribbean partner in a ring that illicitly finances real-estate speculations with “Cosa Nostra” money. Members of this business enterprise then reinvest the profits to buy casinos and finance criminal transactions. I had read about this practice before. In the 1960s a Jewish New Yorker and banker for the Mafia called Meyer Lansky had spearheaded a new way of doing Mafia business. He became known, like Frank Sinatra, as Chairman of the Board. He was brilliant with figures and had created a system for laundering money. An integral part of this system was a casino he built on the Caribbean island of Grand Bahama. My father had worked in that casino, too, and my mother and I lived on the island with him. He worked the night shift as a croupier. I remember him leaving for work after dinner in his black silk tuxedo and shoelace tie. I can still smell the pine-tree scent of his aftershave as it drifted away into the evening air.
In the 1990s it was alleged that hundreds of millions of dollars were being sent all over the world to build airports and harbours, invest in real estate and arms sales to the Middle East, Afghanistan, Latin America and North Africa. The centre of operations was Messina, where judges and police turned a blind eye. The head of the operation was named as Salvatore Siracusano. He is now in prison. Evidence suggested he had good business relations with Youssef Nada, who was identified as the financier of Osama bin Laden, by the US Central Intelligence Agency. Spadaro set up a company headed by his son, a trained accountant, to run the casino and the leisure complex that surrounds it. He turned it legit – something Don Corleone could only dream of.
My father was not alone at the airport. He was accompanied by a young woman and a little girl. Pino Pizzichini was now in his sixties. He was still slim with long, elegant limbs in Yves St Laurent shorts, a crocodile-skin belt, matching shoes, and a pale, silk shirt. He introduced me to his wife, Anna Sol, from the Dominican Rebublic. She was 21. Their daughter, Sasha, was six. I did a quick calculation and found the result disturbing. The warmth of the night sky smoothed over my awkwardness and I did what seemed expedient: I looked pleased to meet them.
The weight of the night was absolute, and it had fallen quickly. That morning, on 1st April 1995, I had boarded a plane at Heathrow Airport for Sint Maarten in the Netherland Antilles. I was going to visit my father. I was not sure what to expect as I had not seen him for ten years. I knew that he was running a large casino in a tourist resort on Maho Bay.
I arrived at Princess Juliana Airport and felt as though I was walking into a Graham Greene novel. The airport is famous for its short landing strip. Incoming planes fly low over the sea, then glide over beaches and palm trees in order to find their mark on the runway. Passengers disembark the old-fashioned way, walking single file down a metal ramp on to the tarmac. Behind the engine of the 747, I could hear the crickets singing. Heat floated on the air.
This heat, and arriving at night on a small island airport, reminded me of a flight to Freeport in Grand Bahama that I had taken with my mother when I was nine. At that point, I had not seen my father for a year or so. The alternating years of his absences and presences compress and elongate like a string wrapped round a yoyo. I will never forget seeking my father out in the waiting crowd at Freeport – the name itself was an emblem of everything I loved in the world – and then his eyes like black searchlights meeting my own across the runway. I ran into his arms screaming “Daddy”. He laughed and embraced me. I was home.
This time, I climbed into my father’s four by four with his immaculately groomed wife and daughter. In my jeans and trainers, I felt out of place. I was sitting high up and far away from my father and a woman barely out of her teens, next to a child to whom I had just been introduced as a half-sister. I had not seen my father for ten years and I suppose, given what I knew of him, I should have known better. But the youth of his wife and the casualness with which he had introduced me to her made my heart heave with disappointment. Besides this, there was something at odds in her demeanour that filled me with a familiar sense of dread. I knew in an instant that my hopes for a fond reunion had been unfounded and that I would have to steel myself for a messy domestic situation. Perhaps Anna Sol felt the same way.
She was a real beauty – black with a Hispanic influence, she was gracious in a stiff, boutique version of Antillean style. But her loose limbs did not carry the grande-dame manner well. Her seriousness dwindled into petulance. Her honey-toned daughter had inherited her curling eyelashes and self-containment. I marvelled at their prettiness. None of us spoke. The buzz of the air conditioning supported our silence. In the darkness I saw we were on a ring road which ran parallel to a clean strip of beach. Lighting up the night were duty-free shops displaying candy-striped dresses like the one Anna Sol was wearing. The shops lined the road with their backs to the beach like a barrier to the sea’s invitation. Sint Maarten, I could see, had been remodelled as a resort for the moderately wealthy. It had lost its wildness.
I went to the casino. In the velvety darkness you cannot see the salt marshes that surround the casinos, only the neon lights of bars and discos. Casino Royale was at the end of a track that led from his house, past other houses and then some woods before ending in the main drag of Maho. The façade was Las-Vegas style Colosseum. The noise and lights overwhelmed me.
The clamour of coins falling from fruit machines, the excitement of punters scooping them up, reminded me of amusement arcades in south London, only these gamblers were overweight Americans in plush tracksuits. I pressed past them and stood at the head of a staircase that swept down into the main gaming room. There were more American tourists gathered round roulette, blackjack, and craps tables. Waitresses glided between them offering cocktails. The croupiers stood out in their black dinner suits, still and silent. The tables they presided over were arranged in a circle. They stood in a ring inside. This was the pit. More men in dinner jackets stood behind the croupiers supervising the proceedings. These were the pit bosses watching the floormen keeping track of the croupiers who watch the players. I searched the pit for my father, and there he was, right in the centre of the pit, flanked by two shift bosses – short, swarthy men in their sixties. He was standing by the high-rollers’ table. Three men were playing poker. They were young with luxuriant black hair and olive skin, expensively dressed. They were too slim and poised to be Americans, and they spoke in Spanish monosyllables. I guessed they were Venezuelan.
“The Venezuelans bring the drugs in,” Anna Sol told me two weeks later. “The drugs come in on boats at night.”
“Your father sends boys to the beach,” she continued as she hurried to pack her bags. It was as though she did not have much time but in the time she did have it was very important that she pull the mask away from my father’s face. She wanted to disabuse me. I did not want to be disabused. The fact that she was speaking in Spanish-inflected French and taking the scattergun approach to revelations concerning my father helped me not hear what she was saying.
It is better not to know but I could not help but get the gist of it. The weight of what she said pressed in on me. My nerves were protesting, I only came here for a holiday! I got more than I bargained for. I had joined Marie-Sol and her friends for a trip to a night-club in the hinterland of Sint Maarten, climbed up Mont Diablotin in Dominica, trekked through the flower-fringed cloudforest of Saba, and found a slowness of pace there that had made me nervous. Everyone, black or white, on that island – which rose sheer out of the sea like a misplaced Swiss Alp in springtime – seemed to have the same surname, that of the Scottish sea captain who colonised it. Back in Sint Maarten I had seen half a kilo of cocaine in a hotel bedroom, which, apart from the sea, strangely mirrored the landscape of Maho: hot white sand, rock and concrete.
“Your father came into the club last night with his ‘detective’.”
I had met this man early on in my stay. Small, mixed race and under-fed, he came to the house every morning to receive instructions from my father. I had been scrupulously polite to him partly because Sasha, at six years old, treated him with the disdain of a duenna for her manservant. There was another reason for my politeness. I felt every time I spoke to someone in the employ of my father, I was walking through a minefield. So I had to tread carefully. I got the impression that my father’s “detective” was not used to being at the receiving end of politeness. My father told me that this man’s job was to follow his errant wife. He suspected her of having an affair. I had met her alleged boyfriend, Jose, on the night we had gone to the night-club, or “jump-up”. It was in a run-down area where the island’s guest workers from the Dominican Republic congregate. Here you can smell the salt marshes.
I went downstairs and asked my father if this was true, if he had held a gun to a man’s head. He was making his morning cappuccino. “It wasn’t a real gun,” he said. “It was a starting pistol.”
Violence did not shock me. But my father’s equivocations did. He gave a rueful smile as he confided in me: “The gun belongs to the ‘detective’,” he said. “The police took him in, but they’ll let him go.”
I did not know what to say, I did not want to hear his equivocations, and the police did let my father’s “detective” go. He was back at the house a few days later: like a chewed-up piece of toffee, he shrank into the leather armchair, emitting the apologetic air of financial hardship. What kind of poverty had he come from that his only recourse was to do my father’s dirty work? I wondered the same about Anna Sol’s parents who let her marry a man my father’s age. From what I knew of the Dominican Republic, its people turn to emigration, legal and illegal, as a means of survival. They are sometimes found washed up on the beaches of Puerto Rico in some makeshift raft bound for America. The lucky ones find employment on the rich islands, like Sint Maarten. I imagined the joy of Anna Sol’s family when my father – a rich foreigner – married their teenage daughter. For all I knew, his advancing years could have been considered a bonus.
“They’re like babies,” my father said on my last night in Sint Maarten. He was referring to the American tourists who keep the island going with their custom. He made a shrug as if to say, “What can you do?” That shrug resonates still. It says he is powerless in his role as supplier to unreasonable expectations of pleasure.
On that last night, I asked him who owned the casino.
“Two Sicilians,” was his reply.
I once read that there are things that should not be known to us. The system, any system – be it a family, a government, a hospital or a prison – is vulnerable the closer you inspect it. Institutions protect themselves, and so do families, by papering over the cracks and maintaining a facade. But my father’s evasiveness, his very silence, compelled me to scrutinize him. I find it hard to let go.
A few months ago, I dreamt I visited him. I went to some small, Caribbean island; the location was unclear. Sometimes I feel that all I know about my father is that he lives on a small, Caribbean island. I wonder if he feels like a king there. I arrived by aeroplane on this island drenched in heat. He was not there to meet me. I did not register my disappointment that he had not made the effort to greet me at the airport. I am so used to it, it does not count any more. Instead, I went straight to his house. This is typical of me. My insistence on getting to the point of arrival is so great that I waft over the obstacles that are there to remind me that there might not be a destination. The door was open but he wasn’t in. I often dream of houses that hold great promise but from which I have been denied access. And in these dreams, for one special night, I have free rein. On this particular night, my father’s house contained signs of him. I could smell his aftershave – cedar and mandarin, and shaving cream, and the neatness that characterises his appearance. Everything was in order: a leather reclining armchair, plush carpet, a glass coffee table – Seventies Scandinavian sparseness. More disturbingly, there were signs of his other, younger daughter by another, younger wife. I was in my half-sister’s bedroom. I could see a jumble of make-up, perfume and clothes. On an occasional table she had left a small present that she had started to wrap for me. In my dream, I decided, out of courtesy, not to pry. The reality is that I was not interested in what she had to give me. I wanted to find my father. I left my half-sister’s room and found the door to his. I tried the handle; it was locked. In the same moment that I realized my way was barred, the door to his room melted into a large, white wall. I was faced, once again, with a blank space.
This is what I know about my father: he arrived in England in 1963. He was 27, and he came, via Germany, from Italy. Since he was not a man to explain himself I have to conjecture that poverty and compulsory military service had a lot to do with his decision to leave his country. He would only say that it was a long time ago. It doesn’t matter now, he would imply with a shrug. So why should it matter to me?
THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH IT
“I don’t see what’s wrong with it.” Donald was a 60-year-old man with a wife in Somerset and a mistress in London. His wife, as a younger woman, had once had a lover, so he decided that this was fair. Donald had several understanding children, though one girl, like her mother, was a little nervous. She irritated him.
As long as no one knew about his affair, he felt he was exercising his entitlement. His friends did not mention his long-standing arrangement with Dinah. And neither of the principals admitted to it. But everyone knew it was there.
Donald opened a small drinking club in Soho and installed his mistress as its manager. He spent most of his time in dealing in antiques, and now he could spend even more time in the city, drinking in his club. Dinah, his mistress, born in America and as slim as Wallis Simpson, preferred to think of herself not as the manager but as the club’s guiding spirit.
She greeted her members as they walked through the door with the following words, “Darling! How marvellous to see you.”
Her club suited a certain kind of person. It was dark and gloomy in an 18th-century, leaning house on a cul de sac far from All Bar One and Yo! Sushi. Up a flight of crooked stairs one entered the club through an unmarked door. The air was stifled with smoke, faces were flushed, and voices defiant.
Gemma, one of the club’s newer members, and not at all typical of its clientele, hailing as she did from a South London maisonette, thought all the other members were acting, acting parts written – they’d like to think – by Evelyn Waugh. Dinah, especially, cultivated an airiness the majority of her members found appealing.
Like stakeholders, they bought into the stock, Gemma thought. As editorial assistant on an obscure literary journal, Gemma had achieved honorary membership. The editor of the Monthly Book Reader and Gemma’s boss was Jammy Warlock. Within the confines of the club he was revered for the bookish atmosphere he provided. His journalism was equally renowned for outraging his readership on a regular basis.
On this particular evening Dinah and Donald were amusing themselves with the fact that newspaper headlines were causing a fuss about paedophiles.
“I remember what we got up to at my own prep school,” said Donald, watching Dinah pour from a bottle of vintage Lafite into his glass. She and Donald made a point of drinking expensively. “The Greeks wrote about it as a matter of course. It’s perfectly normal. Elderly gentlemen have always gone about buggering young boys. In my day everyone just got on with it.” He sipped his Lafite, savouring his discrimination. “No harm was done. It was all rather charming really.”
“Have another drink, darking.” Dinah circulated the bottle around the table until she reached Gemma who proffered her glass. “I think you’ll find this,” Dinah said, having rolled the claret around her mouth, “distinctly peppery; still vigorous for such an old boy.”
“Mm, yes, I see your point, Donald,” Gemma said. “But Ruth Kelly….” she tried to say … has decided she’s not quite so sanguine about paedophiles. Gemma read a lot. “On the Today programme this morning …” But the idea she wanted to air was too long, too complicated, and the words twisted in her mouth before she could shape them. She often had this problem. The club was where she felt it most profoundly, but she kept coming back, hoping it would be better next time. It never was so she had resorted to taking notes to keep abreast.
“Oh that dreary woman,” Dinah dismissed her, turning back to face Donald. “Wicked Uncle Harry was in earlier. He was regaling us over lunch – we had the pheasant by the way, I thought it a little high – with hilarious stories about boarding school. He had this rather eccentric master. Did you hear him, Jammy?” Jammy was snoozing in the corner at a table laid for bridge. No one was playing. “Dear Jammy, he rather overdid the pudding wine, I feel. Anyway, Uncle Harry’s master used to call the boys to his room, take out his false teeth and snog them one by one. A proper, wet snog, tongues and all. Then he caned them, of course.
“How awfully jolly. How High church is Uncle Harry?” Dr Wishart’s hungry face leapt in. He was sitting in between Donald and Gemma at the long table that ran the length of the club. A fairly bright journalist in his thirties, Gemma had been aware of his leg bobbing up and down next to hers. She made a note. Despite being ponderous, the Doctor, as the members liked to call him, tried very hard to be brittle.
“Oh, Uncle Harry’s very smells and bells. He goes to the campest churches where the prettiest choir boys haven’t yet lost their trebles.” Dinah knew all the secrets of her members. Wine made her loosen up until secrets were scattered over the long blank slate of the table top.
Lean, polished limbs, jagged raven’s hair and a thin, wine-stained mouth, noted Gemma … her careful hauteur – such as befits a grande dame – made her dependence on others’ desire of her seem peripheral to her existence. She was beautiful in a tragic, drunken kind of way, she had heard Jammy say. “Too thin, though,” he’d summed up.
“Who’s Astor on the phone to?” Wishart nodded towards another underfed form cradling her mobile in the doorway, swaying like a reed in a gale. “She seems very exercised about something or other.”
Astor was a literary agent. Her latest signing had just won a prestigious prize. Was she striking some transatlantic deal on his behalf? She often had to deal with urgent calls on her mobile.
It was usually her Nanny.
“It’s her Nanny,” said Dinah.
“He’s asking for custody, you know,” said Donald.
“Who? Jonty?” said Wishart.
A meaningful look passed from Dinah to Donald to the Doctor. Gemma was bypassed. It’s my punishment for having mentioned Ruth Kelly.
“But he’s just had a frontal lobotomy,” she said.
“Not quite, darling. ECT,” drawled Dinah. “Do try not to be so melodramatic.”
“Well, he’s in and out of The Priory. Hardly a fit parent,” insisted Gemma.
“Poor Jonty,” said Donald. “He has what magazines these days call issues.”
“What are they?” Wishart played along with him. Gemma looked under the table. His leg had come to a standstill.
“Well, for example,” said Dinah, joining in the game, “Astor claims he can’t even read Peter Pan without bursting into tears. And yet he insists on reading it to the children every bedtime.”
“Oh dear,” said Gemma.
Dinah was gathering steam. “He was hospitalised after reading Harry Potter. Something about parents being divided from their children. He gets terribly upset about that sort of thing.”
Astor joined the table, mobile phone in one hand, a flute of champagne in the other.
“The bloody nanny’s in crisis. Again. I ought to go. Alice has just been excluded.”
“Poor darling. Have another drink,” said Dinah. She prised Astor’s glass from her hand, and reached for the bucket containing Moet that was kept cold and ready on the bar. In one effortfully smooth gesture. Did she ever tire of being elegant? But no one could answer Gemma’s questions.
“D’you know there were five marchionesses at Hugh’s book launch?” Astor sat down.
“I would expect nothing less.” Donald said. Gemma saw that he was smirking which meant a joke was coming. “Did they all sink?”
“It’s a very ancient title,” said Dr Wishart.
It’s a very ancient joke, Gemma wanted to say. These people are out of the ark.
“That reminds me, Dinah,” said Donald. “I need a tie for the next shoot. All the beaters wear them. They’re very strict at observing the form.”
Not again, thought Gemma. Not the good old working classes again.
“The governor of Wandsworth Prison used to wear a tie when presiding over inmates’ executions.” To everyone’s surprise Jammy had roused himself from his bridge table. “Out of respect for the condemned. I met him once. Interviewed him for the Telegraph. Splendid fellow.” Silence fell so he slumped back to sleep in his corner.
“Have another?” Donald this time. To Gemma. He had forgiven her.
The door crashed open and a short woman in an uplifting bra and dress rushed in.
“Here’s Bunny,” Dinah squealed. “Darling! How are you?”
Bunny had been named by flamboyant parents.
“Oh, I’ve just had a long lunch with Roger de Castries at his club. The Garrick, you know. Wing-Co was there …” she would have continued, and she was a favourite here, but this was Dinah’s club.
“Oh I’ve given up on Wing-Co,” she said. “I had high hopes of him as you all know, but you’ll see, he’ll marry a blonde. A young sloaney blonde.” She laughed, looking at Donald, who was married to a blonde.
“Well, anyway,” continued Bunny. “I was showing him photographs that I’ve had taken for my website. I’m quite naked in them. Somehow it seemed so right for my profile. Jurgen Tillman took them. Do you know him? He’s very Tatler. Anyway, they’re perfectly tasteful, but the Wing-Co got very excited. Before I knew it all the old duffers were gathered round. Dear old things. But the exciting bit is that Roger’s commissioned me to present a documentary on the iniquities of NHS childbirth.”
“Poor darling. Was it bloody?” Dinah could do sympathy if she was sure the need for it would pass quickly.
Gemma was surprised by this one-word answer. Bunny was garrulous, and in her eagerness to get her words across, thin streams of saliva accompanied them. Conversation with her, wrote Jammy in his column, was like an invigorating walk by the seaside. Gemma liked that.
Most of the time when she was in the club, though, she felt as though she were in a theatre. Like the Windmill in wartime London, where dancing girls displayed themselves for paying punters. Round and round, round and round, never ending. The same girls, the same eyes, in a circle.
Gemma was growing restless. The talk continued. She helped herself to more Lafite. Was it peppery and vigorous? She took a gulp.
“You’re quiet, Gemma,” Dinah said.
“I’ve a lot on my mind.”
The others were silent, which can be so uncomfortable.
“I can’t imagine why the pheasant was high,” said Donald. “You really must speak to chef, Dinah. I hung it for exactly the required time.”
Gemma couldn’t be flippant with grace. Her thoughts were too dark.
“You are a femme serieuse,” Dinah had said to her once, in a dress shop, as she swirled in front of a mirror. Gemma had stood awkwardly watching her. She felt so fat and helpless. You don’t know anything about me, she thought.
“Would anyone like a drink? I’m going to buy a round,” she said.
“Do not trouble yourself, dear girl,” Donald said. “We’re moving on to port, and we know what Jammy pays you.” Everyone laughed.
“An old mucker of mine died the other day, and left me a dozen of ’47 port,” Donald continued.
“A ’47!” Jammy was alert now. “It’ll hardly be drinkable, will it?”
“I fear not,” said Dinah. “But we like to pay homage to so notable an antiquity.” No one was sure how to react. Bunny moved swiftly so that she could sit smiling at Jammy’s side. “I am a gerontophile!” she had once told a newspaper reporter. She was ambitious, Gemma had registered.
“How’s the mag?” asked Wishart, pouring port into her glass. He looked quite kind at times.
“Did you see my review of Hattersley’s book?” Bunny shouted across the room. “How I love the Edwardians. But he got them quite wrong, you know,” she said to Jammy.
“You’re quite right, my dear. I can’t remember: do you play bridge?”
Gemma longed to repeat what Jammy had really thought of the review. Like the cat in Saki’s story, she longed to repeat all the vicious comments her fellow members made of each other behind each other’s backs. A shaft of blue sunlight came slicing through the window to show the room it was still early evening. Outside, Gemma thought, if you walk along Charing Cross Road for a while you’ll come to the river. Have you ever walked along the Embankment at nightfall?
She looked down at the black and red notebook she’d been holding, and loosened her grip. Her perspiration had made a coloured imprint on the palm of her hand and a stain on the cover of the book.
“You always seem so mysteriously preoccupied,” Bunny nudged past her to reach Wishart. Jammy had dropped off in the middle of her speech. “My mother used to say how unselfish it was to be cheerful.”
“How’s the infant?” Wishart asked Bunny. His leg was jerking again, like a fish caught on its hook.
“Adorable. Did anyone go to Hugh’s book launch?”
“Yes, it was a real coup. We counted five marchionesses,” said Astor.
“Typical Hugh. Any diarists there?”
“Yes. Dreadful little parasites. Still, they have their uses.”
Gemma was writing furiously.
“Hugh? He never comes here since he got out of rehab”… “Shame, but he seems to have lost his sense of humour”… “Did you see the piece he wrote on Tibet for the Times? …” “Yes, but unless you want to hear stories about Buddhist monks fist-fucking each other, I’d avoid him.” … “Oh, it’s Tantric, you know.”
“Can’t see anything wrong with it myself,” Donald said.