Read A Stranger in the Family Online

Authors: Robert Barnard

A Stranger in the Family (10 page)

Kit shook his head dubiously.

‘I think that was true of my adoptive parents. I’d be willing to bet it was never true of Frank and Isla.’

‘No, maybe not. Do you think that Isla ever knew that Frank doubted whether he was your father?’

Kit thought.

‘I can’t say she looked surprised. And she decided at once that he was the source of the rumour, and he’d told it to you so that you’d pass it on.’

‘I’m the most likely one since I’m the only one to visit him … He was determined to tell me, by the way. I’d hardly sat down before he said: “I had a visit from that imposter who’s calling himself my son.” Then he launched himself into it – it took up all the rest of the visit.’

‘Did he make himself clear? Am I pretending to be Peter Novello, or was Peter Novello not his son?’

‘The latter.’

‘Why didn’t he use that argument in the divorce?’

‘There was no reason to. It was an amicable divorce, after some years of separation. Why would Dad proclaim himself a cuckold when
there was no need to? And being a lawyer he was very susceptible to bad publicity, particularly publicity that came from a divorce case.’

‘Fair enough. And especially as there was no child to examine and thus no medical evidence to back him up. He might have sounded like a man with a mania.’

‘Frankly, that was what he sounded like to me,’ said Micky, in a voice that had notes of tiredness and disgust.

‘Oh?’

Micky looked down at his hands.

‘I’ve always loved our mum, skated over the odd foible because we owe her so much. She brought us up single-handed, even before the separation. She gave us everything, and kept us on the rails. I don’t want to think of her as having a bit on the side before the marriage broke down. I’d even have difficulty with it if it was afterwards, when she was a single mother, but I have real problems seeing it happen earlier, seeing her as a desperate housewife. She wouldn’t have it off with anyone just to escape from the tedium of a stale marriage.’

‘Is that how Frank described it?’

‘He didn’t describe it. He’s a lawyer – he describes only what he saw and heard, things he knew thoroughly. That seemed to be the
implication, though: taking a playboy to liven up a marriage gone wrong.’

‘And who was the man – the one Frank obviously thinks fathered me?’

Micky grimaced.

‘You’re not going to believe this. It was an actor called Harry Bradley-Perle. He was in Leeds playing in
The Norman Conquests
. I vaguely remember the play because it’s been on the television. The actor I don’t remember ever seeing. I think I probably would remember if he’d been here at the house because this never was a place with people coming and going the whole time. Isla is naturally a private person and Frank is a lawyer and knows the dangers of indiscriminate talk to near strangers at parties. So I can’t tell you much more about this.’

‘You can’t, for example, tell me where Harry and Isla supposedly first met,’ asked Kit, ‘where they went to procreate, how long the alleged affair went on?’

‘No, none of those. I wouldn’t guarantee Frank knew either. You’d best ask Mum if you dare.’

‘Oh, I’d dare. I’ve nothing to lose. But is that the best way to approach her? I wouldn’t have thought so – at least, not until I have at least a bit of concrete information I can break to her, if there is any, and then go on from there.’

‘That may be the best way, but do you have any choice?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Everyone in there heard me say that we could talk later about Dad’s accusations. If I know Mum, she’ll have you over the grill before the day is out.’

And that was exactly what happened.

C
HAPTER
T
EN

The Ones Who Got Away

‘So what were you and Micky talking about this morning?’ asked Isla, as they tucked into sirloin steak and the usual English off-season vegetables that same evening. Kit thought for a moment, chewed what he had already put in, then placed his knife and fork over the remains of his dinner.

‘I think perhaps you could guess that,’ he said, grinning.

‘I certainly could not,’ said Isla grimly. ‘Why do you think I can guess the nonsense Frank has dreamt up when we’ve barely communicated in the last fifteen years?’

‘Hmm,’ said Kit, feeling rather lawyer-like. ‘I don’t know if it’s nonsense or not, but I’m
willing to bet it at least came up at the time of the marriage break-up.’

‘Why should it? The divorce was “amicable” – which means we both wanted to get out of the marriage as quickly as possible and shot of each other. There was no reason why anything dirty should come up – not if it was something he’d thought up back then, and not if it was something that he’s thought up in the years since, or some mad idea he’s got about you, now he’s lost his marbles.’

‘I didn’t suggest it came up in the legal matters surrounding the divorce, only in your personal relations with him. In fact, I bet it was something that had dominated those relations in the previous five or six years.’

‘And that was?’

Kit prevaricated, then decided to bring it all out.

‘The fact, if it is one, that Frank did not think he was my father: thought I was the product of a relationship that you had – if he’s to be believed – with an actor with a poncy name which I can’t recall now.’

There were several seconds of silence.

‘Henry Bradley-Perle,’ said Isla. ‘Harry to his friends, of whom I was one and Frank emphatically was not. He was christened John Jones. So it’s that old nonsense over again, is
it? If you’re sensible you won’t give tuppence for that. Frank invented things to cover his own tastes and preferences. He thought we’d had enough children, so he clutched at the idea that I’d had an affair. Absolute nonsense. I was a good wife to him; all the priests said so at the time of the separation and divorce. They were trying to persuade me to keep the marriage going, of course. A little local fan club for Henry
Bradley-Perle
was elevated into an affair. Well, take note: there was no affair. I was never unfaithful to Frank, which is a good deal more than he could say. You have been right all along: Frank Novello was – is – your father.’

Again there was silence while he thought this through, trying to make a guess at how much of it was true.

‘So he invented the story to cover his own lack of enthusiasm for a third baby in the family. Is that what you mean?’

‘Yes. Though the truth is he had very little love for any of his children, and had as little to do with any of them as he could. You’ve no doubt been told how he pretty well cast them off when we separated. There were a lot of bruised hearts over that.’

An idea occurred to Kit.

‘Was a holiday in Italy a regular thing for the Novello family?’

Isla looked astonished.

‘No. Why should it be? There was no regular place for our holidays. Most years we never got a holiday at all.’

‘So the holiday in Trepalu was a one-off affair?’

‘As near as makes no difference.’

‘You didn’t think it odd – an odd place, for example?’

‘No. If I thought about it at all I’d have thought that Frank got a splendid bargain from one of his clients.’

‘Was he mean?’

‘Only with his family. He could be quite lavish with spending on himself.’

Kit leant forward.

‘I’m just trying out an idea on you. Frank Novello, stingy with his nearest and dearest, decides to take them on holiday. The place he chooses is in the remotest part of Italy, therefore among the most expensive to travel to. Sicily is also one of the most crime-riddled parts of the country, and was at that time riddled with petty crime and not so petty – blackmail, kidnapping, gang warfare, protection rackets. Why would any father choose, for a rare visit abroad, a part of the country which presented that sort of threat?’

Isla shrugged.

‘I don’t know. Perhaps he didn’t know anything about the crime there.’

‘Come off it, Isla. Everyone knows where the Mafia originated. Frank’s name was Novello. His practice included criminal work. I’ve learnt that at some point in his career he played a biggish role in the gang warfare which plagues Glasgow – ostensibly his role was as a peacemaker and negotiator, but was it? Are you trying to tell me he was unaware of Sicily’s criminal past and present?’

‘It’s not something that concerned me. I never thought about it.’

‘Well, I’m going to think about it. It seems to be possible that Frank arranged the holiday around the kidnapping of the third child in his family, a child he didn’t much like or want. I’m not saying I’m sure about that, only saying there are an awful lot of question marks around that holiday, including: why did it take place at all, and why was it there? One other thing that I’ve only just thought of: at that date the police in Sicily were spectacularly corrupt. An advantage, especially when they insisted my abduction was a matter for their jurisdiction, and the English police went along with their claim, because technically it was true.’

‘You may be right,’ said Isla, collecting up plates. ‘Heaven forfend I leap to the defence of
my ex-husband. I’ve got fruit salad for dessert – does that suit you?’

Kit did not feel slapped down so much as circumvented. He kept the conversation on safe platitudes for the rest of the evening.

A day or two later Kit went along by appointment to the Millgarth police headquarters to have one of his regular chats with DS Hargreaves, who had got them a comfortable little interview room with coffee. Hargreaves sat himself on the table almost as a matter of course, as if placing his rugby-playing frame in a bullying proximity to the interlocutor was second nature to him.

‘It’s a good theory,’ he said at the end of the discussion. ‘So long as you acknowledge how far most of it is conjecture. And admit that conjecture is a complicated word for guesswork. There are two drawbacks that I can see.’

‘What are they?’

‘Almost impossible to prove at this distance of time.’

‘I’m not planning on a criminal case,’ said Kit. ‘I just want to know the truth myself.’

‘You will never know the truth if you content yourself with theory,’ said Hargreaves. ‘Theories are two a penny, evidence is worth its weight in gold.’

‘There speaks a copper. But OK – point taken. And what’s the other drawback?’

‘Your theory takes us up to the point of your kidnapping. With Frank Novello taking his family to Sicily as part of a criminal plan. But it takes us no further. And what happened afterwards is in some ways the most puzzling thing of all.’

‘Why do you say that?’

‘How did you, as a result of the abduction, emerge as the adopted son – albeit probably not legally adopted – of a pair of sensitive, responsible, admirable people who were
law-abiding
to a fault and generally do-gooding. Do you get my point?’

‘Yes. Don’t mock them.’

‘I’m not. I just sound as if I am when I use long words. Let’s face it, you were fantastically lucky, and you’ve profited by what happened to you at the age of three to emerge happy, balanced, intelligent. To account for that we need to know something more about what happened after the abduction in Trepalu. What was the connection between your adoptive parents and whoever arranged the kidnapping?’

‘What sort of thing do we need to know?’

‘First and foremost, were you abducted to order, with your future with the Philipsons already mapped out?’

‘Or?’

‘Or were you abducted first, then made
available for adoption, probably to people who were desperate to adopt but consistently turned down – age, past record, whatever the cause. Britain is very careful, where – say – the US hands kids over to film stars, drunks, druggy people with a whole chronicle of busted-up marriages and relationships. That, at any rate, is how the situation there looks from over here.’

‘My mother used to say that most of the impressions British people have about the Americans are wrong.’

‘Fair-minded as well as all the rest,’ said Hargreaves with a lopsided grin. ‘Oh well, mebbe, as the Scots say.’ He heaved himself off the table and started collecting notebooks and files.

‘Here, you’re not going yet, are you?’ asked Kit.

‘Yes. You forget, kiddie, that I’m a policeman, and not a private eye. I’m paid by the municipality, not by a casual private client who wants his past, his wife or his dog’s past looked into.’

‘Isn’t there any other possible connection between the Novello family and Jürgen and Genevieve?’

Hargreaves stopped by the door.

‘Any number, I would guess. Possibilities I haven’t thought about because I’m not a
thinker by nature. One thing occurs to me – as sort of halfway house between the two I’ve just mentioned. Is it possible that you were taken so that you could be offered to the Philipsons in order to entrap them into a situation where they could be forced to do something, or forced to wink at something other people have done – for fear of losing you, the precious child they had longed for all their married life?’  

Kit thought.  

‘I suppose so. Though I never got the feeling of their being entrapped.’  

‘Think it through. And get to know more about the Philipsons: the English people who adopted them in 1939, their families in Germany or Austria who sent them on the Kindertransport to save their lives, find out about their careers and occupations when they grew up.’  

He seemed to be forgetting, Kit thought, that only Jürgen was German by birth.

 

Two days later Kit was just beginning to recover from one of Isla’s English, or rather British breakfasts. It was an example of excess that he was considering giving up, especially as Isla refused to excuse him from more than two of the eight items on her choice list.  

‘I’ll have a boiled egg tomorrow,’ he said, patting his new belly.

‘Two,’ said Isla. ‘With some good, buttery soldiers.’

‘No, I want—’

But at that point the telephone rang.

‘Kit,’ came the well-known voice of Hargreaves, ‘I’ve been thinking—’

‘You said you never did.’

‘I didn’t quite say that. I’ve been muddling about with my brain on the subject of your adoptive father.’

‘Jürgen. Yes.’

‘He was adopted by an English family after coming here in the Kindertransport – Kids’ transport. And that adoption was very successful – right?’

‘Right. My grandparents – or adoptive grandparents, as I now know – were really nice people.’

‘I’ve been thinking that the success of his own adoption meant that Jürgen was predisposed towards adoption, and willing to consider some way of bringing it about for him and his wife – some way that was a bit dicey.’

Kit considered.

‘I suppose that’s a possibility. Where does it take us?’

‘You’ve never told me if he made this Kindertransport journey on his own, or whether he had brothers or sisters with him.’

‘A sister. She was eight at the time, so he was certainly dependent on her.’

‘I’m sure she would have contributed to the success of the Philipsons’ adoption.’

‘Oh, no question of it. Jürgen always paid tribute to her.’

‘I’m guessing she’s no longer alive.’

‘No, she died a few months after Jürgen. She had heart problems most of her life. Hilda was her name – with an “e” in the German form. If she was still alive I could cut a number of corners, because I think she must have known almost everything about Jürgen’s life and opinions. She was nice too. I liked her. We saw her every year, in the summer, and she always brought me a well-considered present. The way to a child’s heart …’

‘No living husband?’

‘No husband at all.’

‘Partner, lover, flatmate?’

‘She lived with another cashier at the bank. Female. With or next to, in neighbouring flats, I think. Sorry, I should have mentioned what she did for a living. She and this flatmate both worked for Coutts’ bank – very old, rather posh, and definitely exclusive. The head branch is in the Strand.’

‘I know them. We have a branch in Leeds.’

‘Anyway she and this friend – Binkie her
name was – both lived in this large house in Twickenham.’

‘Of the lesbian persuasion, I’m guessing.’

‘I have no idea. Genuinely – I’m not trying to hide anything. I saw her friend once or twice when she came up with Aunt Hilda to the Edinburgh Festival. But I wouldn’t have understood what lesbianism was, and I wouldn’t have been able to interpret the signs, so you can forget all the usual jokes.’

‘Don’t be so bloody self-righteous. Actually I’ve always been a great supporter of women’s rugby. It gives us something to talk about. I sometimes have problems with that, with women.’

‘I can imagine.’

‘Sarkiness will get you nowhere. Anyway, if they lived together, Hilda’s early life, her family, must surely have come up for discussion.’

‘I’d imagine so. But how can I get in touch? I can’t even remember the friend’s surname – or her real Christian name, come to that.’

‘Ring Coutts’ bank. Talk to the personnel department.’

The more Kit thought about the idea the more he liked it. The person he spoke to in the personnel department was one of those people that old-fashioned firms run to – the one who’d been there since she left school.

‘Hilda Philipson,’ she said. ‘Oh yes, I knew her well. Lovely person: always smiling, though she’d had more than her share of ill health, and always ready to help. I can tell you she was a great loss – to atmosphere as much as anything else.’

‘Yes, that’s how I remember her. I’m her nephew. My own parents have died in the last few years, and there’s something come up that I think Hilda may have talked over with Binkie.’

‘Oh, dear old Binkie!’

‘I’m afraid I don’t remember her real name.’

‘Barbara Southcott. Are you wanting to contact her?’

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