Hello Portofino : Part Two

I heard Georgia and Sasha in the playroom, finding the presents, and ripping the paper off the new dress-ups and interactive digital games I had bought. The children appeared with their respective Iron Man and Dare Devil masks on, holding the boxes containing iPads with the pre-loaded games. “Thanks Grandma,” they chorus.

Georgia asks, ”Where are your presents, Grandma?”

Marita looked embarrassed.

I smiled at the children and said, “Having you two here on my birthday is my present.”

“I’ll help them with the devices Mum. Why don’t you sit down for a while?”

She went and fetched me some champagne, and then disappeared with the children. The caterer arrived with the food, set it up and left. It turned out to be another hour and a half before Stanley, Nella and Rodolpho arrived, and we served the oysters straight away. The children went to the playroom with some mini hotdogs, burgers and salad, and then the adults exchanged bland pleasantries over crispy-skinned Salmon.

The children returned when I called “birthday cake.” Georgia clapped her hands and leaped about when she saw the large chocolate ganache covered cake with pink sugar roses, and piping declaring “Happy Birthday Margaret.” The cake was ablaze with light from many silver and pink candles.

Who’s counting?

I invited the children to help me blow them out, and I smiled at the look of horror on Stanley’s face when he saw the spittle-dousing the cake received. Marita was thoughtful enough to take a couple of photos with Georgia’s iPad. Everyone fidgeted, and inquired after each other, competing with their stories as to who has had the worst or the best time since last they’d last met. There was a tense exchange between Rodolpho and Stanley:

“So who’s the latest flame Roddy,” Stanley threw back another whisky.

“How’s you insider trading friend, Stan.”

I met Stanley’s eyes and he turned to his brother, and said, “I’m sorry, Rodolpho.”

He nodded his head and continued eating in silence. I almost tripped over myself with eagerness to reach the front door when the bell sounded.

Ushering the children into the playroom and the adults into my late husband’s study, I introduced Egles Stockans, their father’s lawyer of many years. Egles wasted no time with chitchat. His baritone voice was business-like as he read the will. Every other face in the room changed as the impact of Mario’s will hit. Not one of them had received a thing—not a book, not a 100-dollar bill.

In the stunned silence, and while ignoring the hostile looks directed at me, I explained about the two houses I had received, “The house in which you have dined today I have given to you for your use, but the house in Portofino, Italy I intend to live in until I die.”

I turned to Marita, “I hope you will come and visit me there with the children.”

The four adults followed me as I left the study and went upstairs.

Marita spoke as we entered my bedroom,” But mother, how will you live in Italy on your own?”

“Excuse me a moment.”

I turned to Rodolpho and asked, “ Will you show Mr Stokans out, please?”

He nodded and disappeared. I remember thinking Rodolpho must have been distracted not to play a practical joke, but then he had been supervised the whole time.

“Marita, hang on.”

I stuffed some more items into my one small suitcase: a couple of pairs of loafers and a few silk blouses rolled up and pressed into a lingerie bag. Marita followed me as I went into the walk-in robe for some permanent press slacks. As I took off my blouse and pulled on a cotton knit sweater, I declared, “I’m not going alone.”

“You’re not! May I ask who suggested this craziness?”

I was angry at her attitude.

“My, you’re showing a lot of concern for a daughter who’s hardly told me anything for 20 years.”

I closed my case and wheeled it to the hall door.

“Because you are my daughter I’ll give you one word — Nicolo.”

“Nicolo!” gasped Stanley who hadn’t spoken since the stunning revelation downstairs. “What’s that ex-employee of Dad’s running after you for?”

“Isn’t he years younger than you Mum?” said Marita.

“Nicolo, who is actually only eight years younger, and I have been in love for forty years. Four years after I married your father he left his employ because we couldn’t bear it. I wouldn’t be unfaithful to your father despite his mistress.” I plunged on. “By the way, Marita that doesn’t mean you have to put up with that weasel Ted. Mario was not the model husband but he never hit me, or chastised me like a child. He always encouraged me in my career, and remembered my birthdays, now I’m being real about it most likely the thoughtfulness was Nicolo’s , and the other secretaries. Anyway, I think Ted would treat a hunting dog better than he treats you.”

“But Nicolo, How dare he?” burst out Stanley. “He’s just after our father’s money?”

“ Actually Stanley when I met Nicolo in the supermarket the day after your father’s funeral, I invited him over for coffee, and I proposed to him. It was he who suggested I leave this house for the use of all of you. Nicolo’s family lives in Portofino. He has lived there for eight out of the last twenty years, in his own house.”

“Mum, you can’t be serious”, Marita now spoke. “ What about my job, the kids?”

“Marita, you hate that job. Why don’t you go back to law? Living with Ted has turned a confident, high-achieving woman into a mouse.”

I walked to my bedside bureau, and beckoned Marita towards me. I handed her an envelope. “In there is some cash, and the card of my dear friend Carmel Kelly. She said you and the children might stay with her for as long as you like. It’s up to you!”

Tears appeared in her eyes, and she hugged me.

“ I know why you understand, Mum. I saw and remember more than you think.”

We made eye contact and I nodded.” Come and visit me when things are settled.”

I turned to a bemused Stanley. “If you wanted to sell this house to help your sister get into practice, I’d approve the sale.”

Stanley looked around, said “ Where’s Nella?” and headed downstairs.

I followed him, but while he turned to go towards the kitchen, I went to the phone in the foyer and called a taxi. I had trouble hearing the call taker, because a bellow and curses were heard from the kitchen. I went to investigate via the side door, and found Rodolpho had spread the spittle-laden ganache from the cake behind the main kitchen door. Stanley was seated in it.

Rodolpho, Nella, Georgia and Sasha were forking pieces of the middle of the cake into their respective mouths. Rodolpho looked at me with a cheeky, chocolate-smeared grin, and Stanley groaned.

I wilted with relief: I am no longer legally responsible for what happens under this roof.

I closed my eyes and imagined myself seated at a table beneath a wizened olive tree, sipping a glass of Lambrusco, and holding dear Nicolo’s hand, as the sun set over the Ligurian Sea. With no intention of encouraging them, I laughed and laughed.

Now, I shade my eyes from the glare of the aquamarine sea, as I enjoy the sight and sound of my grandchildren splashing in the foaming shallows.


——The End——








Hello Portofino : Part One

I hope you enjoy this piece:  the protagonist is someone from the opposite end of the age spectrum to Demi’s Afghanistan. What do you think of the characterisation? This story came out of The Storymatic cards picked randomly, and has only been lightly edited by me. No group workshopping, so you may pick up some errors. Once again, it is presented in two parts. Here we go:

I remember clearly the last day before I left Melbourne.

The grandchildren pushed the door open and bounded towards me as soon as the four-wheel drive came to a stop in the driveway. They are five and six years old, and always a great delight to me. The boy Sasha took the hand of Georgia and they ran around me “Happy birthday Grandma, Happy Birthday,” and then kept running. Their mother Marita half met my eyes before hers slid away. “We came straight from Ted’s parents place, via home—they’re not used to two hours in the car.”

I waved the children back from the far end of the terrace where they had begun to do a jig.

They bounced from foot to foot holding hands. “We know Irish dancing Grandma.”

They came towards me, and I called “Who has a hug for grandma?”

I embraced them and kissed their glowing cheeks.

Georgia looked up at me, her blue eyes shining, “Are you having a birthday cake Grandma? Will it be chocolate?”

She hopped down the steps back to the car, shouting, “I’ve got you some flowers. Mummy helped me pick them out.”

She reached over the rear seat, and held a bunch of gerbera aloft. Marita went to help her down, but she managed to hold the flowers in one hand, and balance her descent with the other. “Aren’t these happy flowers, Grandma? Cheery.”

I received them and smiled into her bright eyes. In that moment, the raw anticipation of the unpleasantness the day would bring dimmed. I closed my eyes and pretended for a moment that Marita visited me every year on my birthday, along with stepbrothers Rodolpho and Stanley.

Marita, without a trace of joy, said “Happy birthday Mum.”

And I opened my eyes.

She gave me a side hug and I thought, It’s not my fault. I’ve been as good a mother as I can be.

After twelve years of a hellish marriage to an abusive partner, I knew Marita was crushed. Every time I asked her how her partner, Ted, was she would say “Ok”, just Ok. Then according to her normal routine, she left the children with me and went to work, When she returned from her work day as an administration assistant, I would ask how her day was and she’d say, ”Ok.” On that day she stayed, and pretended everything was Ok for hours, not because it was my 77th birthday, but for the sake of hearing her father’s will. I had organised a catered lunch and cake, then the lawyer was to read the will at 3pm.

When I married Mario, the boys’ father, I was a 36-year-old fashion company executive bowled over by his charm. He was 42 years old, but had already been married twice. I was wise in the ways of business, but naive about men. Within a year I was working part-time and playing supervising adult to Stanley, aged 15. He was the son of Mario’s first wife Priscilla, who had returned to the UK as soon as she had divorce papers. Mario insisted Stanley stay on at Melbourne Grammar, and his mother seemed happy to only see him for a month at Christmas time each year. Rodolpho, aged twelve, was even more of a surprise. Presuming he was the son of Mario’s second wife Melita, I discovered a couple of years later he was the son of Mario’s mistress, Melissa. He was swarthy, athletic, given to dressing up in women’s clothing, and playing devastatingly effective practical jokes.

I imagined myself on New Year’s Eve 1972, entering our caterer occupied kitchen to issue final instructions for our party. At the front door, Mario’s personal secretary Nicolo, acting as butler has just answered the front door to the first arrivals. I enter from the side door of the kitchen, which leads through the pantry to the food preparation area. Something hard, then wet and slimy hits my head, and drips down my neck onto the shoulder and bosom of my Halston-designed halter-neck dress. A bowl clatters to my feet, scattering more eggs, which splatter the width of the pantry. I shriek and the caterer’s assistant rushes in and slips and falls on the mess. Heedless of the consequences, I offer her a hand and join her on the floor. Rodolpho appears dressed in my new pink negligee, howling with laughter.

Stanley makes less of an impression. He is married and has a pleasant wife, Nella. At least she behaved well enough the one other time we met. Stanley is a financial wizard, who is unaware I know he is worth a fortune. When he visits with me he cries poor, and dominates conversation with dull bragging about my older grandchildren, whom I have never met in the flesh.

Rodolpho came out twenty years ago and lives in Milan, where he works in the fashion industry, and has various affairs with young men. His Memoir, Of Prada and Love: Thirty years in the Fashion Industry was on the New York Times best seller list for fourteen weeks and he has had the movie rights optioned. His conversation is a little more interesting than Stanley’s, and he was quite kind about me in his book. Now that they have their adult lives, neither of them shows much interest in me. But I remember the post-midnight conversations of their adolescence, filled with alternate angst and optimism.

The phone rang, and I walked as fast as I could manage to answer it. When I heard his voice my heart beat faster, and I decided I could bear the day. I realised that Marita had entered the foyer and could probably hear me.

“Of course”, I choked back the words My Darling, “5.30 pm is fine. We’ll meet for cocktails at the Park Royal.”

When I re-joined Marita I gave her an overbright grin, “Friends go out of their way to help you celebrate your birthday.”