My mother’s choice of partners is appalling. Not my father, though. I’ve never met him. He disappeared shortly after I was conceived. A one-night stand, my mother told me. She was twenty at the time. He was forty and Italian. I don’t recall any men on the scene in my early years, just my mother and me, and not much money – her scrimping and saving to pay the rent and buy food. It changed when I was fifteen. Both my grandparents, my mother’s parents, died within months of each other. They were the kindest, gentlest people I’d known, mad about each other and their family, and left their wealth equally to their two children. Mum picked up enough to buy a small house and put some money in the bank. Then the men started to appear, which was when Mum and me started to drift apart. By the time I left for university at eighteen, she’d thrown one out and another had moved in. In a perverse way, leaving home came as a relief, and gave me space.
I am thirty, and since I left the cocoon of university in what seems a lifetime ago, but only eight years, I’ve lived and worked overseas, seeing myself as an expat, visiting my mother too infrequently. Two more men have lived with her in that time, both earning the title, ‘The one,’ from her. Both relationships ended in tears. As with her first live-in-lover, the one I also shared the same house with, she threw them all out. With the last one, she chucked his stuff – clothes and belongings – into the street after him and bolted the door. All three of them were after the same: someone to sleep with and free board and lodgings. None of them did anything for her or paid their way. I kept away, finding the men intolerable, and unable to understand how my mother saw anything in them. But I loved her and was there at the end of those relationships, when she needed me to help pick up the pieces and get her life back together.
And then this happened…
‘Hi, Mum,’ I said, answering my phone as I sat in a pizza restaurant with Anna, my partner of three years. I guess I looked apprehensive. Anna was staring at me, attentive, looking curious.
‘Where are you?’ Mum asked.
‘Sitting in a restaurant with Anna, waiting for our pizzas.’
‘No, I mean what country are you in?’
‘I’m in London, why?’
‘I’ve someone I want you to meet. Just a wild shot. Any chance you can come over this weekend?’
Our pizzas turned up. I continued listening to my mother then asked if I could call her back within the hour. I took a sip of beer and looked at Anna. ‘She’s getting married.’
‘What,’ Anna said. ‘Who to? When?’ Anna had never met my mother, but I’d told her all about her.
‘I don’t know,’ I said opening my hands. ‘I haven’t spoken to her for months, and she’s only just told me. I didn’t think there was another man in her life.’ I looked at Anna. ‘But who am I to know? She’d never told me about the others until I went to see her, and by then they were installed.’
We ate our pizzas faster than we normally did, talking little and both wanting to find out more about my mother’s new romance. I told Anna I was worried, saying, ‘She’s managed to extricate herself from bad relationships before. Marriage is a bit more difficult. There’s property, possessions, money, all that stuff.’
‘That’s rather judgemental,’ Anna said. ‘Give your mother some credit. She will have learnt from the past, and she wouldn’t have told you if she wasn’t sure. She’ll know how sceptical you are.’ She looked at me. ‘They could have just gone off and got married without telling you. You wouldn’t have liked that.’
I agreed and called my mother back twenty-five minutes after her call. She sounded almost delirious, happier than I’d ever heard her. I listened, saying how pleased I was for her and I’d call again once I’d spoken with Anna. Placing my phone down on the table, I looked up. Anna looked eager, waiting for me to speak. ‘She’s completely smitten, and said it’s going to happen next week, and would we go along as the only witnesses.’
Anna smiled. ‘How exciting. I can’t wait to meet them.’
I’m an oversees correspondent for an international news journal. I write a weekly column about Italian politics. One day, three years ago, I had to do an article on the reactions of the Italians to the UK leaving the EU. Anna Bagnoli was one of the most respected political journalists in Rome, known for her reliable views of the Italian national mood. I called her up and she agreed to meet me. After my article was published, the journal offered me the position as Italian correspondent, based in Rome. I took it, and Anna being the only person I knew in Rome, I took a chance and asked her out for a drink. To my surprise she accepted, and we went on to have dinner together and start a relationship. We’re in love and live together in Anna’s apartment in Rome. I guess, after several bad relationships, this is the one. Anna and I are in like minds over this, and we’ve told each other so.
She has long dark hair, brown eyes, and the kind of face that always seems to smile. She’s about five-ten, which is handy, as I’m a tall, gangly guy, about six-two, and we seem to manage. I’m untidy, she’s only just a little bit tidier. She wears jeans and casual tops most of the time. I do much the same. Often, she borrows my jumpers.
We read a lot, go on long walks, and both cook. We do have differences. I get quite stressed, especially when I have to finish an article for a deadline, and even snap at her. She’s calm, never seems to fret, and the odd times when I do become grumpy, she just walks away, knowing my mood will pass. She’s intuitive about people she meets for the first time and is usually right.
Julian Atkinson is unlike any of my mother’s other boyfriends; different as black is to white, chalk is to cheese. He’s engaging, generous, funny, and kind. It was clear from the moment we met, he cared deeply for my mother. He’s fifty-three to mum’s fifty, a freelance classical musician playing the violin for many European orchestras, like the LSO, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Dresden Staatskapelle and others. Mum is a musician as well, picking it up again professionally when I left home for uni. They met playing in the same orchestra somewhere.
‘That was such an uplifting evening,’ Anna said as soon a she’d closed the car door. ‘They’re great. Your mum’s great, and I know they’ll be very happy.’
I smiled and said, ‘I completely agree.’
They married five days later, in the morning on a Friday at the Marylebone Registry Office, The Old Town Hall, Marylebone Road. Where Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were married. My mother wore a pale-blue calf-length silk dress, long-sleeved, waisted and with delicate sprigs of white flowers dotted around it. Her blonde hair resting on her shoulders, her blue eyes sparkling, I thought she looked radiant, happy and the most beautiful I had ever seen her. Julian wore a subtle, understated light-grey suit with an inconspicuous, thin silver stripe running through it, a pale blue shirt and a navy and silver striped tie. Anna and I were the only guests. The service was short, and we threw confetti afterwards then went to a small intimate French restaurant in Marylebone High Street where we shared oysters followed by lobster, and drank champagne. On the table was a vase of white roses, each petal tinged with light pink. Afterwards, Julian and my mother kissed and hugged us and left in a taxi to a destination, unknown to us.
It was spring, the weather was warm, and the day had been the most beautiful day in my life so far. We didn’t want it to end and took a long stroll in Hyde Park and Green Park and along the Embankment. When we reached the Millennium Bridge we walked over and shared a salad in a restaurant overlooking the Thames, watching the boats on the river go by, sipping white wine, watching the sun set, and talking about the day and how uplifting and elevated it had made us feel.
‘I was wrong, and Mum’s got it right. Here’s to them,’ I said, as we raised our glasses before we drained them.
Just as we were leaving, Anna turned to me and said with a concerned expression, ‘Why do you think they were in such a hurry?’
‘I don’t know,’ I replied and thought about Anna’s question all the way home.
Mum died on 14th June, three weeks after Julian and she were married. We were back in Rome. Julian called us one evening. He said they’d known she was terminal but hoped they had a year, at least, together, but it wasn’t to be. At first, I didn’t believe it, sitting in the living room staring at the phone.
‘What’s up?’ Anna had asked but I hadn’t heard her. I hadn’t noticed when she’d come up and stood in front of me. I didn’t feel her hands holding mine, nor when she slid them up to clasp my cheeks and lift my head to look into my eyes.
‘I didn’t get to see her before she went,’ I burbled. ‘I wasn’t there for her.’ Anna took me in her arms, and I think I sobbed most of the night.
On a Sunday morning, a couple of months later, Anna sat me down in a chair, knelt on the floor in front of me, clasped my hands together in hers, and looked up at me. ‘We need to talk,’ she said, in a tone I’d only heard once before when I’d tried to pay for her dinner on our first date.
I knew I’d been difficult since my mother died: self-absorbed, not talking to Anna about it or much else, snappy, not sleeping, not interested in cooking, unable to get stuck into anything, and other new unattractive traits that I knew were not my usual. And our sex life waned.
The day before, my editor, Ed, had called. ‘You having a joke?’ he opened, and then went onto to tell me he wasn’t going to publish my latest article and it was ‘crap.’ At first, I thought he was giving me a back-handed compliment, until I came to my senses, remembering he never gave compliments. He continued. ‘It’s dull, badly written, has a litany of typos, and just isn’t your normal standard or style. If we publish it, our reputation will suffer.’ He paused. I didn’t speak, thinking about what he’d said. ‘So, what’s up? You going through some problem?’
I told him about my mother. He was sort of sympathetic, saying, ‘Okay. I get it. You want some time off. Take a couple of weeks, then give me a call.’ He said goodbye and cut the call. Anna who’d overheard some of our conversation and seen my expression asked if all was okay. I gave her an ill-tempered look, muttered that I was fine, and went off to read the article Ed had called ‘crap.’ Anna and I never spoke about it again.
‘Stop being a martyr,’ she said, and I bristled. ‘Chill, I can feel you tense up, already. Just tell me, in your way, at your pace what’s bugging you.’ I pulled my hands away from hers, gripped the side of the chair, and pouted for a moment. In what was only a matter of seconds I’d owned up to myself. I needed help, and Anna, who’d put up with my moody behaviour for the last two months, was offering it.
‘Thanks,’ I said, smiling at her. She smiled back, took hold of each of my hands again, and stared at me, waiting for me to talk. I burbled all sorts of semi-coherent stuff about my mother dying so suddenly, seeing her happy for the first time, and how I’d probably been a bad son, my feelings of guilt, and how tragic it was she found Julian so late, and how he was a nice guy and someone I’d feel happy to go down the pub with. I stopped for a bit, turned away, looked out of the window, stifled a tear and turned back to Anna, who just let me be.
‘You know. What gets to me so much is that I have no one; no mum, no dad, no one. I never thought it mattered before, but it does now.’ I felt my lips quiver. I was going to cry, in front of Anna, but I didn’t care.
Some time passed while we ate scrambled eggs on toast and drank coffee and talked in a more coherent way about my shaky emotions. Anna didn’t say much or lecture me, just listened and sympathised, not in a patronising way, just allowing me to release all my pent-up feelings. I started to feel a whole lot better, wishing I spoken to her about it all before. She never once criticised me for not talking about it. I think we talked for about two hours. We smiled at some of the things I’d told her Mum had done with me when I was small, like reading to me every night, taking me to the park and swimming, rainy holidays by the seaside in England when she’d put money aside to pay for it, our Christmases, Easters, and the Easter eggs she never failed to give me. ‘She was great,’ I said, looking into Anna’s eyes.
She reached for my hands, and held them for about half a minute, staring at me, smiling her familiar smile, letting go for a moment to wipe a small tear off her cheek, then taking hold of one hand again. I looked away for a moment, looking out of the window. Anna stood and left to make some more coffee.
‘You do have a parent, your father,’ she said when she returned.
I looked at her. I felt confused. She knew I had never met my father and didn’t have any information about him. Why had she brought him up? ‘I have no idea about him. You know that. I don’t know where he is or if he’s alive. I wouldn’t know where to start.’ I shrugged, probably showing my disdain, and said, ‘I don’t regard him as a parent.’
Anna withdrew her hands and stood up, looking down at me. She looked taken aback at my sudden change in attitude, and said, ‘Okay, let’s leave it.’ She walked away.
Ed’s jubilant reaction to my request to take a year’s sabbatical to get my head together and look for my father was more than off-putting, altogether scary. ‘Great idea,’ he said, clearly enthusiastic at the thought of my future absence. ‘Take longer if you need it.’ He smacked his hand across my back, turned me round to face him, and said, ‘Go now, don’t worry about tidying up, we’ll sort things out.’ I did as he said, leaving after I’d collected a few things from my desk.
‘I told Ed I wanted a year off, today.’ Anna, who’d arrived home late after working until 9:00 pm, took a sip from the glass of red wine I’d given her when she walked in, stared at me, trying to hide her astonishment, and said, ‘And? What did he say?’
‘He was overjoyed. Couldn’t get me out of the building quick enough, telling me to take longer if I wanted it.’ I picked up my glass and put it back down without taking a sip. I’d drunk three glasses already. ‘Nice to know you’re wanted,’ I added in a sarcastic tone. ‘I guess I did him a favour.’
I shrugged. ‘Saved him having to fire me.’
‘That’s ridiculous. I’m going to change. We’ll talk about it over dinner.’
A big old wooden box I’d taken from my mother’s house after she had died became the linchpin of my search for my father. Anna and I had sat up late talking about my quest. At midnight she brought up the box, saying ‘Have you ever looked inside it?’ I hadn’t, and, in truth, had forgotten about it, leaving it languishing in the spare room where I’d dumped it. Our flat in Rome isn’t large: two bedrooms, a living room, bathroom and kitchen. After I’d moved in, we deposited my belongings – a bike, my favourite books, surplus cooking utensils, back copies of the journal I work for, and other hardly-looked-at stuff – in the spare room where Anna works when she doesn’t go to her office. She would have seen the box most days. It was heavy, made of solid wood with a cracked and broken mahogany veneer, about sixty-five centimetres wide and fifty centimetres deep, more a suitcase than a box, although it has no handles or a zipped top. After a token dusting to stop us choking, we struggled to carry it to the kitchen and place it on top of the table and left it, unopened.
‘It’s big, isn’t it?’ Anna said, eating her breakfast of mango and yoghurt out of a bowl while perched on a stool and staring at the box, which took up most of the tabletop.
‘It’s got a sort of classy, retro appearance, despite its age,’ I said and took a sip from my espresso and a bite from my marmite covered toast.
Anna nodded, drained her coffee, kissed me on the cheek, and said. ‘It’s certainly old. I give you that. Have fun with it, and I hope you find something. I’ve got to go now.’ She gave me an affectionate wave, picked up her phone, and left.
Lengths of thick, dirty string wrapped around the box to keep it together proved difficult to untie. I fetched a sharp kitchen knife but stopped short of using it. My mother would have tied the box up with care, to sever and slash would be disrespectful, I thought. So, after twenty minutes, my hands black and sore, I stood up and stared into a jumbled assortment of my mother’s past, things that she’d cherished, shoved in in no particular way in a random manner, and looking as though many items had been pulled out and stuffed back again several times.
Small bundles of clothing here and there. Some items semi-folded, others rolled up. Long and short dresses, torn jeans, blouses, a top, a sweater, a scarf or two, a few belts. I didn’t count them, but I guess about fifteen. Each item would have been special to Mum, worn on an occasion she would have wanted to remember. I held every item up, examining it, trying to imagine at what sort of event she may have worn it. A wedding, for work, a night out, down the pub? I didn’t know, was probably wrong each time, but, for a few seconds, it brought me closer to Mum, and for that I was grateful. I hung or hooked each item wherever I could find a space or perch around our flat.
I found twenty books, all paperbacks and most looking well-read, their covers marked, the pages worn. Titles by Bernadine Evaristo, Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith, Ali Smith, Jonathan Franzen, Elizabeth Strout, Don Delillo, and Gail Honeyman. These were authors whose books I’d read, but who Mum and I had never talked about.
There were pieces of bric-a-brac, notepads with the beginning of a musical score written in my mother’s handwriting, programmes for orchestral concerts in which she’d performed, and envelopes containing pictures of people I didn’t know. All I piled on the sofa, then started on the tangle of jewellery. Earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and rings, most of which I’d seem Mum wearing at some time, and all typical of her. Nothing bawdy or brash, all understated and unique.
Her taste in music gave me pause for thought. Not her classical albums, I’d expected them, but CDs by Joni, Dylan, Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, James Taylor, Neil Young, Dire Straits, The National, REM, Alanis Morissette, and Simon and Garfunkel. An eclectic mix, and artists I’d enjoyed. But like her books, her CDs became symbols of someone I didn’t know.
While watching the thin stream of black coffee dribble from the spout of my espresso machine into a white cup, I thought how much of my mother’s life I’d missed. Was this my fault? Should I have spent more time with her? I questioned, as I sipped on my drink. A message from Anna interrupted my spell of remorse. She’d asked how it was all going. I’m almost done but feel a touch sad. Her books, CDs make me feel I didn’t know my mother. Feel guilty. Nothing yet about my father.
Anna didn’t reply. I figured she’d gone back into a meeting.
Wedged between two of Mum’s old knee-high boots was a wad of photos and letters, held together with a large paper clip and an elastic band. I was drawn to it by the crumpled and slightly torn picture on the front of a man, mid-thirties to mid-forties, fit-looking, handsome with thick curly black hair and a trimmed beard. He was dressed casually in navy crumpled jeans, a white T-shirt, and a denim jacket. The sky was blue. He stood in front of an ancient church – overseas somewhere – and was smiling, a sparkle in his eyes. He’d posed for the photograph.
I found I was staring at it, at a distance at first, then bringing it closer, sensing it was sending me a message. A tremble in my hands, a bead of perspiration on my forehead and a trickle down my cheek.
I turned the photo over. I gasped.
To my darling Florence, all my love Giovanni. XXX
Florence was my mother’s name. Giovanni was my father’s name, and he was Italian, that my mother had told me. But this isn’t right. This was not the sort of picture after a one-night-stand. There was some writing in the bottom left corner. I peered at it. It was in a different handwriting and pen.
Giovanni Vitali. 15/04/90. Vinci.
That is my mother’s writing, I’m sure. But it doesn’t add up. I was born on 7th February 1990. If this is my father, my parents split shortly after I was conceived, some eleven months earlier.
Lifting the box off the table to the floor, I pulled off the elastic band and tossed it and the paper clip to one side. I spread the other photos and three envelopes across the table to be able to see them all at the same time. I peered at each photo.
‘Oh my,’ I said aloud, staring down at the photographic evidence of a romantic affair between my mother and Giovanni, lasting from 7th May 1989 – the date on the first photo – to April 1990. I guess from when I was conceived to a couple of months after I was born. Pictures of them holding hands, arms around each other’s shoulders, kissing, my mother in a bikini, Giovanni in a pair of beach boxer shorts, the two of them in restaurants and bars, sitting in a rumpled bed with only the bed linen to hide their nakedness, a couple of photos of my mother as she grew larger with me in her womb.
And then the photo that made me shiver, the two of them, Giovanni and my mother, holding me at the hospital shortly after I was born. Mum had written on the back.
Darling Dan, born 8:45 am 7/02/1990, a few minutes old.
Why didn’t she tell me the truth? They looked happy. Why did it end?
I looked around the kitchen. Nothing seemed real. I shook my head.
Why, why didn’t she tell me? If I’d known I would have gone to find him. Now he may be dead.
I called Anna. She was in a meeting and said she couldn’t talk, but called me back within a minute, saying I sounded ‘odd,’ and she’d left the meeting. In a shambolic, almost incoherent way I told her all I’d found. ‘I just don’t get it. Why didn’t she tell me?’
‘What did it say in the letters?’ Anna asked.
‘You said there were three envelopes.’
Sunday, 11 July, 89
My darling Florence
I’m missing you. I love you so much, and to hear that you’re expecting our child is just the most exciting, wonderful news. I want to live with you and our baby forever. I’ve made arrangements to rent a small cottage here in Vinci so you can come back and we can live together. I spoke with Lucca, and he said he’d be delighted for you to work for him again in his bar for as long as you feel fit to do so. The hospital here is good, and as soon as you return, we can book an appointment for you to go and see an obstetrician and book in for the birth.
Let me know when you’re returning, can’t wait to talk about names, and I’ll meet you off the plane.
All my love, forever,
Next, I read a postcard. It had been put in an envelope and looked, at first, like a letter.
Monday, 12 September
So pleased to get your card, and hear you’re having a great time with your parents, and that they like the idea of having a grandchild. These few days seem to be going slowly. I miss you so much, and can’t wait to have you back at the end of the week and of course with your parents who my Mum and Dad are as excited as I am to meet, and more than happy to put them up in the farmhouse.
Until Saturday, love you loads, miss you loads, meet you and your parents at the airport.
All my love, Giovanni. XXX
The last letter was dated 15 April 1990, the date my mother had written on the first picture I’d found, the one at the front of the pack. Watermarks partly obliterated some of the writing.
My darling Florence
Now I’ve had time to assess the damage done in the fire, I have very bad news. Not only have I lost both my parents, the farm, the olive orchard; it appears they had large debts they hadn’t told me about. Not that there’s much left, a little machinery and two old vehicles, but a no-use order has been put on them by lawyers acting for the debtors. I have been left with nothing and no source of income.
It is with a heavy heart that I have to say I can no longer support Dan and you. I think it’s best for the moment if you stay in England with your family.
I cannot say much. I’m gutted by everything, the loss of my parents, and the uncertainty of our future.
I love you and Dan as much as ever and hope and pray that’ll we’ll be reunited some time.
All my love, forever. Giovanni. XXX
Could the watermarks have come from my mother’s tears?
Anna held the note for a moment or two, turned to look at me, her eyes watery, her lips clenched tight together. She reached for her glass of wine and dragged her other hand through her hair. ‘It’s so sad.’
Later, after we’d eaten supper and talked about it more, trying to figure out why my mother had never told me the real story, Anna looked at me with a slight frown. Her eyes narrowed. ‘Don’t get me wrong, don’t think I’m being insensitive, but do you think Giovanni, your father, was telling the truth?’
The next day, May 15, I packed a small bag and set off from Rome to drive to Vinci in Tuscany, where I was born. With the temperature averaging 25°, I’d taken little: shorts, some Ts, a pair of chinos and a few shirts for the evening, changes of underwear, my old, battered sandals, and a washbag. Anna had persuaded me to take a jacket, and I’d chucked one in at the last minute. I didn’t know how long I’d be away but guessed I could wash a few things if necessary.
I stopped off in Arezzo and headed for the renowned medieval square, Piazza Grande. I found a table at one of the restaurants and ordered a cold beer, a plate of fried anchovies and lemon, and a tomato, avocado, and mozzarella salad. While I waited, I gazed around at the charm and beauty of the ancient buildings all around me. Many of them dated back to the 13th century, the most recent were built in the 16th century. I understood why tourist guides describe the mix of architecture as evocative, bringing to mind times past when the square thrived as a bustling centre of commerce and the site of regular jousting competitions. I’d never visited before and felt grateful for opportunity.
My lunch came. I’m sure it was delicious. I remember eating it with relish, but I didn’t give it much thought. Since Anna had asked me the previous evening about my father’s last letter, the one about the fire, many questions had swamped my mind, like, did the fire happen, or was it my father’s way out of the relationship and his responsibilities? If it was true, why didn’t my father and mother ever get back together? Had he been unfaithful? Did he marry again? What else might I discover, and maybe I have a half-brother or half-sister or both? I hoped to find the answers but knew none would be resolved until I found my father, and that wasn’t a certain. Feeling a strange mixture of optimism and pessimism, I paid the bill, thanked the waiter for an excellent lunch and her good service, and made my way back to where I’d left the hire car.
Villa Il Pittore – the old painter’s cottage – is about ten minutes away from Vinci by car. An official at the local council offices told me the Villa had been built on the site of my grandparents’ burnt-out farm and was now a holiday let. When I was told it was available, I rented it for a few days, in the hope I was closing in on my father’s life and his existence, or death.
Vinci takes its name from Leonardo da Vinci, born in Casa Natale di Leonardo situated approximately three kilometres to the northeast of Vinci in the frazione of Anchiano. Vinci’s a small, pretty, ancient town where some buildings, like in Arezzo, date back to the 13th century. It has 14,500 inhabitants. I planned to check the electoral roll for any Giovanni Vitalis living in the city and seek them out. There were three. The first had passed away, the second divorced his wife and moved, leaving no forwarding address. Nobody seemed to live at the address of the third – I went back to the house three times. After three days of searching, I called Anna and said I’d be back home the following evening. After I’d packed, I thought I’d have a drink or two at a couple of bars and then sample Vinci’s best-rated restaurant.
‘Buongiorno,’ the old man said as he sauntered up to the wooden table and sat facing me, hooking his knobbly stick over the chair’s back.
I’d been unable to sleep and had risen early, taking a short stroll in the garden to collect figs to have with yoghurt, a large coffee and a slice of bread for my breakfast. I sat on the old wrought-iron bench alongside the table on the bricked patio, outside the house. All around me aged terracotta pots of various sizes, some cracked but charming, brimmed with contrasting bright flowers in reds, dark blues and white, some trailing to the ground. In the distance, the sun peeped over the top of the Tuscan hills, and a light breeze rippled through the olive trees. A bee buzzed, a butterfly flitted, and the two cats – one ginger, one tabby – came up to me and started rubbing against my legs in the hope of food.
I looked up at the suntanned, weathered face of the old man. He smiled. His face radiated with warmth. Who is this is, I wondered? He must have come through the garden while I’d been picking the figs.
‘Look,’ he said, his eyes lit up, as he pulled out an old, battered, leather wallet from his worn, faded, blue cotton trousers. His cracked, bent fingers searched around amongst a few banknotes and scraps of paper before he drew out a torn photo. He smoothed and straightened it as much as he could, then placed it down on the table for me to see. ‘When you were born,’ he said, jabbing his finger at the picture, the same one that had made me shiver when I found it amongst Mum’s things, the one of my mother and him, holding me at the hospital shortly after I was born. I shivered again.
We both stood up and looked in each other’s eyes. His, like mine, were moist.
‘Papa?’ I said slowly.
‘Mio filio, my son,’ he replied.
I stayed in Vinci an extra day. When I returned to Rome, Anna met me at the door, gave me a glass of wine and said, ‘Come and sit, and tell me all.’ She took my hand, leading me to the living room where we sat crossed legged on the floor, opposite each other. ‘Tell me right from the beginning, how he found out where you were, and everything else. I won’t interrupt, and I don’t want you to miss anything out.’
I told her he’d been contacted by someone who I’d met in the bar the night before. A man, who turned out to be a farmer, who’d heard my story, why I was in Vinci, and figured my father had been one of his workers. He went around to see him, and my father came to find me the next morning.
Anna eyes looked as though they were about to fall from their sockets, her mouth open.
‘The story’s true.’ I looked at Anna, staring at me: her eyes seemed to have grown even larger. ‘Everything my father wrote in that letter to my mother happened. He was left bankrupt. There were debts on the farm. The land was possessed by my grandparents’ debtors and sold to developers who built the villa as a holiday let.’ I paused to take a sip of my wine. Anna did the same. ‘He found a job on a farm, and then went from farm to farm, working on the land.’ I looked at Anna. ‘It was when he stopped working ten years ago, when he was sixty, that the arthritis started. ‘He’s now got it everywhere. He’s riddled with it.’
‘Oh, how awful. Poor guy.’
‘He looks about eighty, but he’s seventy.’
Anna’s face puckered. She put a hand up to her eye and wiped away a tear. Wiping the other eye, she asked.
‘Has he a wife, children? Did you ask him that?’
‘He was married. He didn’t say what happened, just he’s not married now, and has no children.’
Anna wiped her eyes again, stood up, and said, ‘Oh this is so sad.’ She touched my head and walked to the kitchen. ‘I have to have another drink and get some tissues.’ She returned with the tissues, a large bowl of olives, crisps, and refilled both our glasses.
With difficulty and emotion, at times finding it hard to be coherent, often close to tears, I went on to tell about my father’s tiny cottage, how he lives on his own, and how he drew with his stick in the ground the boundaries of where the farmhouse had stood at Villa Il Pittore.
‘Did he say how he felt about it all?’
I looked at Anna. ‘He was upset and didn’t try to hide it. At first, when we realised we were father and son, we hugged and tears streamed from our eyes. For the rest of the time together – he stayed with me at the cottage last night and I went to his house this morning – we were both emotional, one setting the other off.’
‘And what did he say about your mother?’
I clenched my lips, gritting my teeth, then said, ‘He loved her more than he could say. He’s kept that picture in his wallet ever since they last saw each other, some thirty years ago.’
Anna looked at me. Her expression thoughtful, as though she wanted to ask me a question but wasn’t sure she should. And then, in a slightly shaky voice, she said, ‘Did you tell her about your mother?’
I nodded. ‘I did, and he cried, as did I.’
‘So, what happens now?’
‘I asked him if he wanted to come and live near us here.’ I shook my head. ‘He said no. He doesn’t like big cities, has lived all his life in and around Vinci and wanted to stay there. I said, “Would you like us to see if we could get you more help for your arthritis?” He said he was okay, takes painkillers and has a good supply.’ I smiled at Anna. ‘But when I told him we would visit him often, his face lit up.’ “Please, please do that. I’d love to meet Anna.” I said we’d go this weekend, and I’d call to confirm.’
I called my book, The parents I didn’t know. My father helped me, supplying all the dates and facts of my parents’ short-lived relationship, just ten months, and his life afterwards. Julian – Mum’s husband of a few weeks – wanted to be involved as well. He told me my mother and he had talked often about her relationship with my father. By listening to Julian and matching it with the story my father had given me, it became apparent that my parents’ relationship was no fling, but a love affair too sublime for this world. Of no consequence were the years between them. They fell deeply in love; each the oxygen the other breathed, their minds in tandem. A shared happiness, liking much the same, having the same views, concerns, and values, and both wanting a better world.
To begin, writing the book was hard. I was shocked and grieved, sad for my parents who were good people and destined for each other, but it wasn’t to be. Anna helped, talking with me for hours about them, why they never got back together, and why my mother never told me about the affair. The process became cathartic, allowing me to accept the sad facts and rejoice in a parent found. I’ll be forever grateful to Anna, and for pushing me to find my father and getting to know him for the fine person he is.
And, for the record, I wasn’t conceived the first time they met.
My father put it like this: ‘We’d met the previous evening at a nightclub on the beach and danced until four in the morning. Your mother said she had to go. We kissed lightly on the cheek, and I asked her to have a meal with me the next evening.
‘We sat under an olive tree, watching the sun set. To begin, we both had fried calamari, newly harvested green olives, and big quarters of lemon. We followed with a giant sea bass, that we shared, chunky chips, and a tomato salad. We talked and joked, and laughed all evening, helped on by a couple of bottles of white wine. She was fun, full of energy, with a warm infectious nature, and I adored her. I hoped she felt the same about me.
At midnight the owner of the restaurant stumbled towards our table with the bill. “Mr and Lady,” he said and smiled. His big, bushy moustache drooped down the sides of his mouth. “I must not disturb. You both look happy, but I have to sleep. Early tomorrow I go to the market to buy fresh fish.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t notice the time,” I’d said, and pulled from my wallet some lire notes, placing them on top of the plate with the bill.
“No problem,” he’d replied picking up the plate. “I bring you some brandy with the change, and you stay as long as you like. But I lock up the restaurant.” He looked at us both and smiled again, and flung his arms open in an embracing gesture. “It’s good? Yes?”
“It’s good,” I said and gave him a thumbs-up with both my hands.
He walked away then returned after a few minutes with the change, a bottle of brandy and a couple of fresh glasses. He shut up the restaurant and left us to it. We had a large glass each, left the notes and the brandy bottle by the restaurant’s side door, and walked towards the beach, where we sat and talked for an hour or more until we ran out of things to say and listened to the sea as it lapped against the water’s edge and the sound of us drawing shapes with our bare feet in the sand.
‘“I must go,” your mother said after a while, and I leant forward and kissed her. ‘I guess that was the night you were conceived.’
Dad stayed on in Vinci. Much as we would have liked him to live in Rome, near to us, we didn’t try to change his mind. He had friends in Vinci, shops and markets close by his home, didn’t like big cities, and was happy there. We visited him often. The few times we brought him to Rome to stay for a weekend, he was always genial, pleased to be with us, seemed to be enthralled as much as first-time tourists were by the city’s charm, history, beauty, and food, but after a few days, he showed signs of wanting to return to home. We respected his feelings and took him back as soon as we were able.
I’d always thought meeting up with Anna was the best thing to happen in my life, and I’d often told her so, and she’d said the same to me. Dad being alive and being able to see him often was an additional feel-good factor – like the icing on the cake. Every time I was with Dad, he’d say how grateful he was I’d searched for him and found him, and we’d brought him untold happiness and contentment in the last quarter of his life. But apart from our bonhomie when together, I noticed a physical change in him. No longer did he hobble and have difficulty moving around, even leaving his stick behind on many occasions. It seemed our reunion had lessened the severity of his arthritis by a noticeable extent.
Words could not describe his happiness when I told him, about a year after I’d found him, that Anna was expecting a baby, his first grandchild. He was delighted, and hugged Anna and me many times, pacing between us, saying, ‘Sono entusíasta’ and raising his hands in the air. He insisted we opened the vintage bottle of prosecco he kept in his tiny cellar for a special occasion, and this was a worthy occasion. He didn’t know, and I couldn’t find out its age, but it was exceptional. After his second glass, he asked if we knew the sex of the baby. I told him we did, and said, ‘It’s going to be a boy, and we’re going to call him Giovanni.’