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.”


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