Read A Stranger in the Family Online

Authors: Robert Barnard

A Stranger in the Family (2 page)

‘My name is Kit or Christopher Philipson. I’m an only child – you could have guessed that, I suppose: that must have been the reason for … you know.’

‘Yes.’ The monosyllable showed an element of steel had entered the voice.

‘Anyway, my parents were Genevieve and Jürgen. My mother was a part-time teacher in the Glasgow University Fine Arts Department. She’d been a full lecturer before I … came along. She went back to part-time work when I’d got settled. She never put it like that to me. She’d have said “old enough”. She always spoke as if I’d been born to her.’

His mother’s lips were pursed.

‘But surely she must have had a story ready for friends and neighbours? They would have known she hadn’t been pregnant.’

‘Eventually – not long before she died – she told me I’d been adopted. I expect she’d told them the same. The simpler the better, and the more likely to be accepted without comment.’

‘I suppose so. What about your d—your other dad? What did he do?’

‘He was a journalist – rather a high-up one.
Worked in the offices of one of the Glasgow dailies, and ended up deputy editor. Very nicely off – the house was plenty big enough for us three and the au pair of the moment.’

‘Oh … there was an au pair?’

He ignored undercurrents.

‘Yes, right up to my mother’s death. The au pair was really just a foreign maid by then.’ He cast her a sharp look. ‘They never foisted me off on her. She was just someone around when they were not.’

‘Oh yes, I’m sure. They wouldn’t have foisted you off when they presumably had … wanted you so much.’

‘That’s right. I really did always feel wanted. Anyway, there was a grandmother early on – my mother’s mother – she died when I was about seven or eight. My father’s birth father was sometimes mentioned, but it was never suggested that we went to see him or he should come and stay with us. I suspect he must have lived abroad.’

‘Why do you think that?’

‘He – my father – came to Britain in one of those trains from Germany.’

‘The Kindertransport?’

‘That’s right. That was in 1939, and he was not much more than a baby, brought by his sister, my aunt Hilda. He was three.’

‘Your age.’

‘Yes … Jürgen and Hilda were taken in by the Philipsons in Hampstead, stayed with them after the war, and took their name. I remember the Philipson grandparents a little, but by then they were very old. Jürgen’s real father was Austrian or German, I forget which. He got out of Vienna during the war but I don’t know any more about him, and nothing about his wife, my grandmother.’

‘I see … Can’t you eat any more?’

Kit pushed his pasta away and smiled.

‘I’m afraid I’m too excited. It was lovely.’

‘Well, we’ll clear the plates away, and I’ll put coffee on … Oh, there’s Micky now. Don’t get up. I don’t want him to see you through the window. You stand out.’

She hurried back to the kitchen. Kit stood up when he heard the front door open, as if he wanted to use his height to counter any
assertions by Micky. I must be Peter now, he said to himself. As he was saying it, the door was opened and a plump young man – fleshy anyway, in spite of his proclaimed lack of relish for eating – was ushered in. His face was artless, and he was dressed in white overalls with traces of several colours of paint. He turned round, back to the door.

‘You didn’t tell me you had a visitor, Mum.’ He turned back to Kit and held out his hand.
‘I’m Micky Novello. I won’t interrupt, I’m just in and out.’ But his voice faded on the last word. ‘But you … you remind me of—’

‘I’m Kit Philipson. Who do I remind you of?’

‘I don’t know … You, Mum, I think.’ He turned around again, but she took hold of his shoulders and pushed him towards Kit.

‘It’s Peter, you great idiot. Your little brother Peter. All grown up.’ And she went back towards the kitchen and left them alone with their past.

‘I used to be Peter Novello,’ said Kit quietly. There was a moment’s silence, then Micky sat down on one of the dining chairs.

‘God Almighty,’ said Micky. ‘Where did you come from, then?’

‘Glasgow, actually. Where I grew up.’

‘We always thought you must be in Sicily or Corsica, or somewhere dangerous and glamorous like that. Where the people clam up and keep outsiders away.’ He suddenly got up and threw his arms around Kit’s shoulders, which he could just reach. ‘Welcome home, boy.’ He sat down again with a thump. ‘But who did you grow up with?’

‘The Philipsons – Jürgen and Genevieve. The people I thought till a while ago were my birth parents.’

‘Bloody ’ell,’ said Micky, wiping his eyes. ‘This is an experience. Like a dream.’

‘It’s the same for me. Except that I had no
idea what was coming. I hope it’s a pleasant dream for you.’

‘Oh, it is, boy, it is.’

‘Can I ask you a question?’

‘Yeah – go on.’

‘I gather Dad – my Leeds dad – is in some kind of home.’

‘That’s right, he is.’

‘Is he senile? Alzheimer’s, is it? If it is, is that why he’s not here, being nursed by Mum? It must be very severe.’

‘It’s not that severe, and he’s not dangerous. That’s not the reason. Mum obviously hasn’t told you that he and she separated two years after you were … abducted. They have hardly had anything to do with each other in the last seventeen years. He’s in a nursing home, but it’s not a bad one. Mostly when I go to see him he makes perfect sense.’

‘You see him?’

‘Now and then. We’ve always got on OK, Dad and me.’

‘What does Isla think about that?’

‘I’ve never asked her. I don’t even know if she knows, though she could easily guess. We never talk about Dad.’

‘I told your mother the only memory I have of him is his feet – stuffed into his slippers with the backs down and the heels exposed.’

‘That’s my dad. Still is.’

‘I don’t have any other memories, good or bad.’

‘They shouldn’t be bad, but they would very likely be patchy. The worst you could say is that he was so busy he didn’t have much time for any of us. I remember his playing very little part in our lives till we were old enough to play cricket and kick a ball round.’

‘My … other dad wasn’t much into sport. Perhaps it was one of the English things that never really gelled with him. But he liked sleeping through a cricket match.’

‘Wasn’t he English? Was he Italian?’

‘German Jewish. Got out just in time. Always felt relief and gratitude to the British, but also a bit of guilt.’

‘I suppose he would. Will you be stopping here with us?’

‘For a few days. I’m in a hotel – a nice, inconspicuous one on the road to Kirkstall Abbey. I won’t stay long this time. There’s still a lot to be done after my mother’s death.’

‘Was that recent?’

‘About six weeks ago. She left everything very orderly – she was that kind of person – but there still seems a lot for me to see to.’

‘I wonder if you’ll come round to my place? See the family, like. My wife is called Pat, and
we’ve got three, just like Mum and Dad. Ben, Becky and Tom.’

Kit could not hold himself back from saying: ‘Your mum and dad had four, Micky. Four.’

‘Sorry! I’m really sorry.’ And he did look shamefaced. ‘It’s just that after a bit we didn’t talk about you a lot. And the reason was Mum – it upset her. She’d go quiet, wipe a tear – you know how it is with women. So it meant that you were … not forgotten, but only there in the background. I had memories of you but over the years they have mostly faded.’

‘I understand. I’d love to come and meet you and your family.’

Micky said: ‘Tell Mum I’ve got to go back to work,’ and slipped out the front door. When his mother came back the talk started – not structured: a mixture of gossip, impressions, exam results and future ambitions. Isla learnt that her long-lost son had done well in A levels and had started at St Andrews University two Septembers ago. He and his adoptive mother had both thought it better that he didn’t go to the university she worked for. They talked about food they liked – Italian in Kit’s case, Isla liking the old English dishes as well. Kit and Isla both drank wine, both disliked English beer, and Kit regretted that there were no Yiddish meals or drinks that his father – sorry! my Glasgow father
– had liked which he could have tried, because he’d heard Yiddish cuisine was fabulous. And so it went on.

Isla tried to persuade him to stay the night, but Kit thought that was too much in one day: he would prefer to be on his own now, so he could sit back and think about the whole experience of reuniting with his family. Isla accepted this (she had to do something similar, after all) and went to ring the taxi firm they used.

‘I suppose tomorrow I’d better go to the police,’ said Kit, as they waited at the front door.

‘Police?’ said Isla, seeming to tense up. ‘But why?’

‘Well, I must still be on their books as a lost person. A lost child probably, though they won’t be surprised I’ve grown up.’

‘But the Leeds police had very little to do with the investigation. As we said, the abduction happened in Italy – Sicily in fact – and the Italian police were involved, of course, so the English police mostly left it to the Italians.’

‘I see. But there was a bit of publicity in the English press, surely? I’d have thought the English police would have responded to that.’

‘Very little that I remember. The Italians considered it their case. I expect the name had something to do with it.’

‘The name?’

‘Your name. Our name. Novello.’

Some enlightenment came into Kit’s face.

‘I just thought Novello was the name of some singer or other. I never thought of it as an Italian name.’

‘This looks like your taxi,’ said Isla.

She kissed him goodnight with emotions that Kit thought might be love, thankfulness, and, strangely, fear.


Party Time

The next day, in the evening, Isla took Kit round to Micky’s, so that he could make the acquaintance of Micky’s family. Isla insisted that it be an evening party, and that the children could ‘stop up late for once, surely’. She was one of those grandparents, Kit noted with amusement, who courts the approval of the new generation. Early that morning she had rung her youngest son, Dan, in Australia, told him she had something special up her sleeve, and that she would ring him from Micky’s that evening in what would be early morning time in Australia. Kit had intended that day to go along to the police headquarters in central Leeds, but he slept so little in the first part of the night,
and so exhaustedly in the latter part of it, that he felt ragged when he woke up and postponed the visit. He wandered round the vicinity of his hotel, starting with Kirkstall Abbey, noticing little, but deep in thought. He had a pub lunch in Headingley, surrounded by students who, except in accent, seemed identical to the ones he was used to in St Andrews. Late in the afternoon he caught a bus for Isla’s.

The party had been set for seven-thirty, and Isla insisted that they call a taxi. ‘Make a bit of a splash,’ she explained. Kit didn’t see why they needed to – thought it was either so Isla could drink without having to think of driving home, or maybe that the splash would symbolise instant and total acceptance of his claim to be Peter Novello. He went along with her wishes, feeling that he wanted to know all there was to know about her, and that included her tastes and prejudices. When the cab got to the Pudsey home of his brother’s family, the door opened while he was paying the driver, and a substantial young woman appeared – in her thirties, fleshy, with a low-cut blouse and a long green skirt on. His sister-in-law, Kit presumed. She had a smile as wide as a chat show hostess’s. Big and bossy said Kit to himself. Well meaning maybe, but that made it worse if anything. He could see Micky being
smothered in a marriage with such a woman.

‘You’re Kit – no prizes for guessing that. I’m Pat, Micky’s wife. Micky said you were
, and for once he’s right. Micky, come and welcome your brother—’

‘I’ve welcomed him back.’

‘—to your home, I was going to say.’ She caught Kit’s eye straying to the windows of her house, where were grouped adults and children, gazing at him with the voracity usually inspired only by a national celebrity. The sight filled Kit with something between embarrassment and fear. ‘Now come on in. You can’t say “hello” to your family through a window frame. And your family is what we’ve got for you: all the available Novellos.’

She put her arm around him and led him through the hall to the sitting room. Kit was conscious that Micky and Isla were bringing up the rear and weren’t saying anything – maybe in some kind of apprehension as to how he would be received. If so, there was no reason for it: Pat surged forward and carried all before her, as she probably always did.

‘These are our three – Becky, Tom and Ben. Say “hello” to your new uncle, all of you. This is Wendy Maclean, Dan’s partner. Dan is in Australia playing football, or soccer as they call it, and doing some job in insurance. This is your
sister Maria. That’s right – give her a kiss. It’s a long time since you had a sister, I believe. Her husband is called Ivor – Ivor Battersby. He can’t be here tonight because he’s away on business – says he’ll be here in spirit. And this is my Auntie Flora, who’s here because we love having her, and she’s a marvellous helper with the children.’

‘Hello, Auntie Flora,’ said Kit, feeling ridiculous.

‘You’ll have noticed that no one here has a drink, not even the children,’ continued Pat. ‘I wanted to wait until you arrived – you and Mum, of course. Because the party only begins now: you are the party, and I want you all to get yourselves drinks from the sideboard, and when you’ve got them, we’ll all have a toast … What will you have, Kit?’

‘A red wine, please.’

Kit was getting the idea that Pat was an organiser – not just of her own family, but of everyone and everything in sight. Things had to happen as she planned for them to happen. Poor old Micky, he thought. He had sensed that Isla was not enamoured of her daughter-in-law.

‘Here we are,’ said Pat, bustling back. ‘A Spanish red. Now … has everyone got a glass? You children? Yes, of course you have. Now, keep on your feet everyone for the toast … Right … ! Everyone say it: “Welcome home, Kit.”’

‘Welcome, Kit.’

‘Welcome back, Kit.’

‘Welcome home, Kit.’

Everyone said something appropriate, and Kit broke the tie with Pat by going round from person to person to thank them for their welcome – and perhaps to pick out by their voices those who had welcomed him or welcomed him back, but had not welcomed him
. Was it significant that she’d toasted him as Kit rather than Peter?

He sat down on a battered leather sofa beside his sister Maria, sipping his drink as she rather suspiciously sipped hers.

‘You know, I think I always knew I had a sister,’ he said. ‘I didn’t have much in the way of memories, but that much I did know.’

‘It’s sweet of you to say so,’ said Maria. ‘I was eleven when you disappeared, and I worried for a long time that we’d fade from your memory.’

‘No. Never entirely. And I remembered my room. I could almost describe everything in it to Isla yesterday.’

He saw Maria registering how he referred to his mother. Maria was a slim, almost elegant young woman, dressed older than she was, perhaps to minimise the age difference with her husband. The hair was done especially for this impromptu family party, and the face was welcoming, except
perhaps for the small, narrow mouth, and the eyes which were sharp – even calculating.

‘I’m glad you could describe your room. Over the years it’s become almost a mausoleum, but we never protested because it was Mum’s decision, and after all, when Micky and I had moved out there was no particular use for it.’

‘I get the impression – correct me if I’m wrong – that since our parents separated Isla has been … call it the head of the family.’

Maria nodded vigorously.

‘Oh, she has. Pat may dispute that now and then, but Mum has been in charge … naturally enough, I’d say. They were divorced, by the way, Dad and Mum. When you were with us they were Catholic, at least nominally.’

‘I don’t suppose I knew what that meant. I was so young.’

‘No, I suppose you wouldn’t. But after they’d separated Mum let all that slide, and we none of us today would say “Catholic” if we were asked our religion. Oh, except Dad, perhaps.’

‘He still is?’

She shrugged.

‘Search me. I haven’t talked to him for years. And he went along with the divorce, so he’d have to be a very bad Catholic indeed, wouldn’t he?’

‘Micky says he’s pretty au fait with things sometimes, at other times quite far gone.’

‘I know,’ she said, seizing on the point quickly. ‘That’s why I can’t see any point in going to visit him. He lost interest in us anyway, even while he had all his marbles. He’s lucky to have found somewhere that will look after him well.’

‘The nursing home?’

‘The Four Bells. Sounds like a pub, doesn’t it? Micky says he’s perfectly happy there. But Mum’s the one you need to talk to. She’s been head of the family for as long as I can remember. I think Dad couldn’t stand all the fuss about the abduction. Your abduction – sorry, your being here takes some getting used to.’

‘Of course it does.’

‘So Dad just moved out, and moved on. In the early days we met him, went out with him now and then. But then it sort of stopped. We didn’t want it and he didn’t want it – that’s how I read it now.’

‘So if there was any problem, you went to your mum with it?’

‘Our mum. Yes, we did. Oh, I don’t mean she was one of those matriarchs. We may have taken problems to her, but in the end we did what we thought right, or best, or whatever. Like when I married.’

‘Ah! Yes, I did get the feeling that—’

Maria shot a quick glance over her shoulder,
and said: ‘You must come round as soon as Ivor gets back from his trip. It was planned long ago, so there was no way he could come tonight. He’ll be so excited to meet you.’

That embarrassed Kit.

‘I don’t feel exciting. I was just a kid who got abducted.’

He stood up. A look shot round the room assured him that the person seated with her back to Maria’s position on the sofa was the one whom Pat had called Aunt Flora. He guessed that she might be a collector and disseminator of gossip. He let his gaze wander gracefully around as he poured himself a second glass of Rioja from the wine box. He felt he wanted to talk to someone who was not too obviously of the family, but rejected Aunt Flora as not someone whom a long-lost son would want to spend much time on. He wandered instead over to a niche by a window, where stood, with a lurid-coloured liquid in her hand, the girlfriend or partner of his brother Dan.

‘Hello, you’re Wendy, aren’t you?’

‘Yes, Wendy Maclean.’

She squeezed out words, as if they were rationed.

‘And you’re my brother Dan’s girlfriend, aren’t you? I’m glad they asked you.’

‘Oh, they didn’t. Dan rang me and told me to
go along, so I rang Pat and told her I was coming.’

Kit gaped.

‘Let me get this straight. We’re going to ring Dan later to tell him I’ve suddenly turned up out of the blue, but in fact he already knows and has sent you along to report on my reappearance. Is that right?’

‘No, not really. He doesn’t know you’ve reappeared. He knows – from his mother – that the Novellos are meeting tonight, partying, and that he’ll be rung up with some surprising news. He didn’t say much to me on the phone – too mean to run up big phone bills. He’ll be surprised by your return to the family fold but Isla’s promise of a surprise may have taken the edge off his. You are the big surprise the Novello family have hoped for for twenty years. He was only a baby when you went out of his life, but he’s lived with all the talk about you.’

Kit digested this.

‘I see. And what will be his reaction, do you think?’

‘Oh, it’ll just be a question of money. It always is with Dan. He left the country because someone told him he could get a whopping wage from a first-rate Australian soccer team.’

‘And has he found he can’t?’

‘He’s found there’s no such thing as a first-rate Australian soccer team.’

There seemed to be considerable glee in her voice.

‘I see. I did wonder when I heard he had a second job over there in insurance. Perhaps he’s selling it door to door. Soccer doesn’t have that big a hold Down Under. And I still don’t see what my return to the family has to do with money.’

‘He’ll be imagining that at best your mother’s estate will be divided up into four not three equal portions. At worst, you – as favourite and
child – will cop the lot. That really would cheese him off.’

‘The question of money and inheritances hasn’t come up with my mother. That’s how important it is. Besides, she’s still young. I don’t want a share of her estate. I was the only child of my … my other family, and I inherited the whole estate. That’s more than enough for me. Too much, if you want to know the truth. Because I don’t like all the responsibility.’

‘Worth a bundle were they, then, your other parents?’

‘Not really. Just comfortably off.’

Calculation flooded into her lightly mascaraed eyes.

‘Depends what you mean by “comfortably”. I find I can always use a little extra. No – quite a lot extra, if you want to know the truth.’

‘Sounds like my money-conscious brother has made the wrong choice if he wants to hold on to his ill-gotten gains,’ said Kit. Wendy put out her tongue, but undressed him with her eyes. ‘Anyway, we can only talk about an “estate” because the price of pretty ordinary houses has gone up like crazy, though they’ve plummeted since the crunch. Isla’s fairly ordinary house, divided by three or four, won’t amount to riches by a long chalk. Dan had better stick to scoring goals for the best team he can find in Australia. Better still, come home and play for a Premier League team.’

Wendy began caressing his hair, forming the lock that fell over his eye around her finger in a parody of a ring.

‘He’s not that good. You’re cute – you know that?’

‘Oh, I know it,’ said Kit, getting up. ‘I’ve been told it by half the nubile girls in Glasgow.’

‘Well, they’re right. Don’t go—’

‘I’ve got to meet all the family before I talk to your money-mad boyfriend.’

But in fact he landed up with the family member he already knew. Micky was standing by a bookcase that mostly contained recipe books. He was surveying the gathering with a satisfied but slightly cynical eye.

‘You did well to get away,’ he said, as Kit
came near. ‘She’s a one-woman disaster zone. I’m afraid our brother Dan always chooses girls who are like-minded to himself.’

‘Not a good idea?’ said Kit, knowing the answer.

‘The worst possible idea. Dan could only be saved by a sweet and sensible little thing who wanted a cosy nest and three or four children to look after.’

‘Instead of which, all he and Wendy share is an obsession about money.’

‘Exactly. Standing here I could almost see the realisation crossing Wendy’s face that Dan was never going to make the big bucks, and that you were a better bet.’

‘In her dreams. By the way, she seems to think that Dan will feel rather threatened by my reappearance.’

‘I suppose he may be,’ said Micky, thinking. ‘He’ll be totting up the financial implications.’

‘That’s what darling Wendy thought. Not that Isla is likely to die for many years, but how much of an “estate” will there be? Say that the house in Seldon Road would have fetched fifty thousand fifteen years ago, and now could fetch two hundred thousand. A very nice increase in value, but is two hundred thousand that big a deal, however it’s divided up?’

‘To people with nothing much it’s a nice little
sum. And Dan and I have nothing much. You’re forgetting—’

But Kit, who was preternaturally alert at this gathering of the clan, had noticed the little line of Micky’s children, standing by the door, their eyes fixed unalterably on him.

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