Read A Stranger in the Family Online

Authors: Robert Barnard

A Stranger in the Family (3 page)

‘Your brood?’ he asked Micky. ‘Becky and Ben and something else?’

‘Tom.’

‘Why are they looking at me like that?’

‘Because you’ve always been just a name to them all their lives, someone they’ve always assumed was long dead – as frankly we’ve all made a similar deduction, even though we all hoped you were alive. And then suddenly you turn up, alive – large as life, in fact. You ought to be some kind of ghost, but you look perfectly normal – ordinary, if you don’t mind the word.’

‘I don’t. Call them over. They can poke me and find out that I’m like everyone else, then perhaps they can forget about me, or at least let me alone.’

‘Becky! Tom! Ben! Come and meet your new uncle.’

They walked over eagerly, their eyes glued to his face, Becky put out her hand.

‘Hello, Uncle Kit.’

The rest followed her lead, as they seemed to do in most things: ‘Hello, Uncle Kit.’

‘We thought you’d prefer to be called Kit,’ said Becky.

‘I do. I forgot the “Peter” quite quickly, when I was a very little boy. Now, what do you want to ask me, Becky?’

She had it off pat.

‘What did it feel like to be abducted? What did they do to you?’

‘Nothing very much,’ said Kit, feeling a wave of disappointment run through the children. ‘The people who took me just told me that my mother was very ill, and they were going to find me another mummy who would take care of me while the one I knew was ill.’

‘That wasn’t true, was it?’

‘No, it wasn’t.’

‘I suppose they demanded a ransom for you, didn’t they?’

Kit looked genuinely surprised.

‘Do you know, I’m not sure. Your grandma would know better than I do. I never heard that they did, but my mother – my new mother – was very ill when she told me about how I had come to her, so I couldn’t really ask her questions.’

‘Well, they usually do, the people who nap kids. Pirates and that.’

‘Perhaps,’ said Micky, ‘your grandma called it an abduction, not a kidnapping, for that reason – there was never a ransom demand. I certainly
never heard of one, and I was about ten at the time, and knew all about kidnapping. Maybe the kidnappers got money from your second family, the ones you’d been abducted for.’

Kit shrugged.

‘I don’t know. I’d be surprised if there was any arrangement of that sort. And if so my other mother wouldn’t have told me. It would have made it sound too much as if they’d bought me.’

‘Well, they did, didn’t they?’ said Becky brutally. ‘Did you like your other mummy?’

‘Yes, I did. I loved her.’

This caused Becky in particular to think furiously.

‘If I’d been ab … ducted,’ she said finally and cautiously, ‘I don’t think I’d have loved the man who called himself Daddy but who wasn’t really my daddy.’

The caution was glaring, and proved her to be a truth-loving child.

‘Go along with you,’ said Micky, shooing them with his hand. ‘You’ve had your time in the spotlight with Kit, now go and have some fun.’

‘There’s never any fun at adult parties,’ protested Becky. But she marshalled the other two to go into the dining room, where the food was laid out.

‘I interrupted you,’ said Kit to Micky. ‘You were about to say something.’

‘Was I?’ said Micky. ‘I forget.’

‘Something about Isla’s money.’

‘Oh … Oh yes.’ Micky had clearly not forgotten, but had had an access of caution since beginning the subject. ‘Well …’ he looked around, taking in the figure of Auntie Flora, now in a nearby armchair, ‘maybe now is not the time. Let’s just say Mum doesn’t struggle along on the standard old-age pension. There’s more.’

‘Could you manage a lunchtime drink?’ asked Kit. ‘Not tomorrow – I’m hoping to go to the police. Say Thursday?’

‘That would be fine. The Vesper Gate in Kirkstall – I’m working there that day. What are you going to the police for?’

‘To try to find out what, if anything, their investigations produced back in 1989, when the abduction happened.’

‘But surely all the investigation was done by the Sicilian police?’

‘Maybe – if they were not bought off by the Mafia or the Camorra, or just couldn’t be bothered. But you’re forgetting there must have been a British dimension.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I landed up with a new family in Glasgow.’

Micky looked troubled but then shook himself and murmured: ‘You’re right.’

‘Though of course, the British police didn’t know that at the time,’ said Kit. ‘And presumably still don’t know.’

‘Yes. Of course … that’s true. Most of the investigation at the time was into the Mediterranean countries. The Sicilian police thought you would be pretty conspicuous, with your light-brown hair and English features.’

‘Right,’ said Kit. ‘How did you know that?’

‘It’s something Mum always mentioned when your disappearance came up … Oh look – we’re going in for the nosh-up.’

The guests were trooping across the hall to the dining room, where the large table was crowded with plates – quiches, pork pie, plates of meat and fish, salads and sandwiches, with wine boxes on side tables and plenty of coke and orange pop for the children. As Kit queued and selected he found to his annoyance that he was next to Aunt Flora but way away from any of the other guests. He expected the worst when she pulled at the sleeve of his jacket. The face that looked up at his was avid to impart knowledge.

‘Do you know how your family got their money?’

It wasn’t the sort of question one got asked every day. Kit turned away to indicate his indifference to money.

‘I believe my birth father was partner in a solicitor’s firm.’

‘That wasn’t where the money came from.’

‘I really don’t—’

‘The money came from ice cream.’

‘Eh …? I mean, I beg your pardon?’

‘Ice cream. The Italian firms that cornered the market in Scotland.’

‘Oh, I’ve heard all about that.’

‘Of course you have. Everybody has. You being Scottish by adoption too. That’s what Pat told me. It’s notorious, is all that. It was bribes from both sides – the old game. Doesn’t do to be sniffy about your birth when you’ve got that in the background, does it?’

‘I can’t imagine Isla being sniffy about anything.’

‘Oh, you’ve got a lot to learn. I suppose you know your mother’s never been the same since you were abducted?’

‘I can understand that. Did you know her back then?’

‘Oh no. I mean it’s what everybody says.’

‘Well, let’s hope that the everybody who says it has known her better and longer than you have.’

‘Oh, snooty!’ said Aunt Flora, with a satirical twist to her face. Kit put his plate forward, spooned up prawns on to it, and went back to the sitting room.

‘You’ve made a wonderful spread,’ he said, sitting down next to Pat.

‘Thank you. Not bad for short notice. The only way we can get the children into good order on nights like this is to let them help with the preparation – the easy bits – then give them leave to take whatever they like best. It works pretty well, though Becky tends to stand by the quiches and say “I made these” to all the guests.’

‘And has she?’

‘Say thirty per cent. And remember the pastry is supermarket frozen … It won’t be long now before your mother rings to Australia.’

‘Really? Won’t it be early in the morning there?’

Pat looked sceptical.

‘Dan told your mother when he first went out there that he got up at 5 a.m. every day to train. She took him at his word.’

‘Wouldn’t you?’

‘Never. He is – pardon my French – a bullshit artist. He says what he thinks will impress people.’

‘I’m getting a picture of my brother Dan.’

‘To be fair, he has been horribly spoilt by your mother. After you were abducted she transferred all the love she’d been giving you to the youngest. That’s what everybody says, anyway. Dan didn’t have a chance.’

And half an hour later Kit saw Isla disappear into the hall, then heard her go upstairs. He guessed the phone had been transferred up there to give him a little privacy. Five minutes later his mother appeared at the door and beckoned.

‘He’s longing to talk to you,’ she whispered. ‘It’s on the landing.’

Kit’s inventiveness had left him. All he could think of to say when he took up the phone was: ‘Hello, Dan.’

‘Well, well, well. It’s big brother Peter, returned from captivity.’

‘It’s Kit, and I had a very comfortable childhood, thank you.’

‘I bet you did. I never went along with Mum’s fears that you were being abused, starved, enslaved – you name it, she thought it was happening to you.’

‘Why didn’t you believe it? It’s possible, horrible things happen.’

‘Oh, I go my own way. Believe what I like.’

‘Convenient for you.’

‘Don’t get sarky. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be friends.’

‘No, of course there’s not. I don’t remember anything about you.’

‘Really? Well, I don’t suppose I’d discovered football when you were snatched.’

‘Probably not, since you were a baby. How’s the career going in Oz?’

‘Very nicely, thank you. It’ll stand me in good stead when I get home. Which may be sooner than people think.’

‘I look forward to that.’

‘I bet you do. We can be friends, Peter—’

‘Kit.’

‘Kit, if that’s what you want. We can be friends if you remember two things: keep your hands off my girlfriend, and keep your hands off my money.’

‘By money you mean—’

‘What’s coming to me in my mother’s will. Get it?’

‘Oh, I get it.’

‘What did you and Dan talk about?’ his mother asked, when he went back to the party.

‘Oh, just his hopes for the future and that,’ said Kit vaguely, but not feeling at all vague.

In the taxi on the way home Isla said: ‘There, now you know most of the family … The grandchildren are lovely, aren’t they?’

Kit agreed, uncertain how far the implications of the analysis were meant to be understood by him. Whatever was the case he did understand them, and wondered at his birth mother feeling the need to make such base insinuations. The undercurrents in this family clearly ran strong.

C
HAPTER
T
HREE

Past History

When Kit went up to the enquiries office of the police headquarters in Leeds he was still largely unsure of what he wanted to see, who he should ask for, and how he should present himself and his case. He had spent the wakeful hours of his night in bed thinking over his new family, deciding they were a mixed bunch among whom he definitely disliked Dan and definitely liked Micky. Footballers these days – he remembered no earlier times – had a presumption of dislikeability stamped on their foreheads from even before their emergence from obscurity. He doubted very much whether Dan was ever going to make his emergence into footballing glory, and he had to admit he was glad of that.
Dislikeability was all the better for not having instant fame and fortune attached to its
coattails.

The sergeant at the desk was a middle-aged man, beginning to run to fat, a comfortable mix of geniality and firmness.

‘Now, young man, what can I do for you?’

‘It’s a bit difficult,’ mumbled Kit, conscious of not making a good impression. ‘It concerns a kidnap that took place in 1989.’

‘Before my time,’ said the man, staring at his computer screen. ‘What is it you want to report? … I suppose that’s why you’re here?’

‘Yes … Yes, I suppose it is. It concerns the kidnapping of Peter Novello, who was three at the time.’

He was subjected to a concentrated stare.

‘Oh? Kidnapping’s pretty rare these days. Where did this one take place?’

‘In Sicily.’

‘Sicily? That explains it. Dicey sort of place in my experience. And what’s the information you have that you want to report?’

‘I am the child that was kidnapped. I lived at that time in Leeds with my mother whom I’ve now been reunited with, and my father, who is in a nursing home and I haven’t met yet.’

‘Ah … I wondered.’ The stare was resumed momentarily, then he pressed some keys on his
computer. ‘Ah yes. I have it here … Well, you’ve done the right thing. Will you take a seat? Do you still answer to the name of Peter Novello?’

‘Not as a rule,’ said Kit, dallying by the desk in the vain hope of seeing anything on the screen. ‘But I suppose I’ll have to get used to it. The name I’ve always – nearly always – gone by is Christopher Philipson. Usually Kit.’

‘Right. I’ll give you a call when I’ve found someone to talk to you.’

Kit went and sat in a corner, looking around surreptitiously at the collected specimens of the indigent and the indignant gathered there. It was twenty minutes before a large man (once a sportsman, Kit guessed, but one no longer) came in, leant over the sergeant’s desk, and had Kit pointed out to him. He came over, hand outstretched, and Kit felt obliged to submit to the finger-crunching ritual.

‘Mr Novello? I’m Sergeant Hargreaves. Pleased to meet you. I’m not sure what we can do for you, but I’ve lined up an interview room, so come this way.’ He ushered him through a door, taking them away from the public area, and then led him to a small office. ‘I’m going to be starting from scratch here, so I wonder if you’d mind if we recorded the talk. It would give me a record to check things against if they get complicated – as I suspect they could.’

‘I’d welcome it, and yes, they could get complicated. You realise I’ll often be very vague myself …’

‘Eh? Oh, I see. Being very young when it happened, I suppose. You probably don’t have many memories of your time here.’

‘Hardly any, and nothing very useful. I remember my father’s feet, and my mother’s smell when she took me in her arms – oh, and the smells of her cooking. Not very useful. And to tell you the truth I’ve got better memories of my bedroom – a real child’s one, full of animals and cartoon characters.’

Hargreaves nodded and turned on the tape. For the next ten minutes Kit went over all his vague memories of his first family, of how everything had ended in Sicily and how the ‘kidnap’ had terminated with his being handed over to the Philipsons.

‘A Glasgow family, you said,’ Hargreaves muttered, perhaps relieved at hearing the last of the Sicilian end. ‘So how did you get there?’

‘Air, I think. I’ve just a memory of having flown when I was very young, and how I expected it to be exciting, and it wasn’t.’

‘You’re not wrong,’ said Hargreaves. ‘Mostly cloud and things below impossible to pick out. Who was with you?’

‘I don’t remember. People I’d never seen
before, I imagine, and never since either. Anyway I have no picture of them in my mind. A couple, that’s all. Sort of couriers, I suppose.’

‘That seems likely. Have you any memories of being left with the Philipsons?’

‘None. The earliest remembrance from those early days is a bear in a tartan kilt, which I’ve probably still got in a cupboard somewhere.’

‘You still live in the same house in Scotland?’

‘Yes,’ said Kit, feeling some need to apologise. ‘I inherited everything when my new parents died. Only child, of course.’

‘Ah, I thought you would be,’ said Hargreaves. ‘But people with children, or an only child, do adopt quite often – “to make the family complete” they usually say.’

‘Adopt, yes. Take a kidnapped child as their own – I wouldn’t have thought so.’

‘Point taken. Now, do I understand that you gradually accepted the Philipsons as your own family – your birth family as they say these days?’

‘Yes, I did,’ said Kit at once. ‘I must have asked about my birth mother at first, but she soon slipped out of my mind. I was so young. My memory of her – her smell when she kissed me – could have been anyone: grandma, maid, housekeeper – whoever.’

‘And your new parents put it around that you were adopted?’

‘In so far as they said anything, yes.’

‘How far was that?’

‘The two neighbours were the local people my mother knew best. I’ve talked to them in the weeks since she died. And she must have said something to her department at the University. Glasgow University. She had leave from them at first, then worked part-time and, when I was about twelve, went back to teach full-time.’

‘Yes. So some people knew—’

‘Or thought they knew. Yes. The woman next door said my mother informed her they were not going to tell me I was adopted till I was old enough to understand. That age was left vague, so the neighbour never took it up with me. She said she never thought twice about it.’

‘Yes, people take adoption pretty much in their stride these days. You don’t hear silly talk about “bad blood” anymore.’ Sergeant Hargreaves stretched his long, tree-trunk legs under the table. ‘Still, you came here, came down to Leeds, and found your real mother, knew where she was. So at some time you learnt or thought you did that you’d been adopted, and at some time, too, you learnt what had really happened was that you’d been abducted – am I right?’

Kit nodded.

‘First things first: the adoption that never was.
My mother, Genevieve Philipson, found she had breast cancer just over a year before she died. So she and I had that year together, knowing it would be her last, and making the best of it.’

‘Your adoptive father was already dead?’

‘Yes. Jürgen Philipson died five years ago. He was deputy editor of one of the Glasgow newspapers. Well, my mother and I used that year in all sorts of ways, but in particular I wanted to know about myself and my background. At first that meant the Philipsons, but I soon came upon something odd: in the family snap album there was only one snap of me as a baby. You’d have thought, having waited so long for a child, that they would have been snapping me all the time. Then I went over in my mind what I’d been told about myself as a baby, and I realised there was nothing. No stories about my first step, my first word. I had really come up with the answer to the mystery before my mother told me.’

‘Ah, she did.’

‘Yes. She thought I ought to know before she died. She was a fantastically truthful person, hated a lie. Yet she’d been living one for twenty years. One evening, when she’d gone to bed, in great pain, she told me that I was adopted, and I said I’d guessed as much. That pleased her. It meant that the lie had been less of a lie. I’d discovered the truth beforehand.’

‘The truth?’

‘Well, the fact that I had only come to them when I was three.’

‘How much did she tell you that night?’

‘Not much more than that I’d been adopted – only she said “you came to us”, which must have been her love of truth asserting itself again – when I was three.’

‘Didn’t you ask questions?’

‘Oh yes, we talked about things. I remember I nearly used the phrase “who I really was” once, but I caught myself in time and substituted “who I was for the first three years”.’

‘You have a good memory.’

‘It was only a year ago – less. It was when the cancer really started to … to bite. Poor Mother. She wanted to be brave, but often couldn’t be. And there I was – always asking questions, suspecting she really knew the name of my birth mother. She fobbed me off with “the adoption people have a lot of rules and regulations” which didn’t seem to tie in with the fact that people have a right to know the name of their birth father. In the end I told her – she loved the truth after all – that after her death I’d try to find out who my birth mother was.’

‘How did she take that?’

‘Not well at first. She wasn’t thinking straight. When she could she realised that she couldn’t
stop me. And shouldn’t. It was my right to try to find her, and she shouldn’t put obstacles in my way. She only asked that I wouldn’t do anything – act on the information, I mean – until after she was dead. I could say that without any difficulty. We were looking to fill every day when her illness allowed it to see or do something. I let my degree course lapse for the moment, with the university’s permission, and we had as near to a whale of a time as was possible under the circumstances.’

‘But what had she told you?’

‘That my mother was a Mrs Novello, who lived in the Leeds area.’

‘Nothing more than that? No Christian name or address? No reason why Mrs Novello had put you up for adoption after nurturing you for three years? That must be unusual.’

‘Yes, I suppose it must be. Unless there’s a sort of cumulative inability to cope, perhaps. Anyway that’s what my mother told me. Do you think that at the time of the adoption – the handover, let’s call it – she wanted to know as little as possible? That way she could not let anything slip, or have things forced out of her.’

‘That’s a bit melodramatic, isn’t it?’

Kit shook his head.

‘There’s something I haven’t told you: my adoptive father was a Jewish child refugee to England. He arrived by special train a week or
two before war broke out. It could have been he who wanted to know as little as possible.’

‘I suppose escaping Nazi Germany was bound to leave scars,’ said Hargreaves, not able to hide a degree of scepticism.

‘He left it when he was very young – hardly more than a baby. With his sister. I think he felt guilt, and the guilt built itself up as the world learnt more and more about what happened in the death camps. He and I did lots of things together, but he was never a happy person, except in his private life. In his professional life the death camps were a sort of shadow floating around and over him. He was always feeling he had to explain.’

‘I see. And somehow this pair of people, intelligent, cultivated people – have I got it right …?’

‘Oh yes. Very much so.’

‘I’m not very cultivated myself, so I’m having difficulty connecting with them. This very cultured pair somehow connected up with people who were either prepared to kidnap to order – they wanted you – or who kidnapped and then sold you to the highest bidder.’

‘Yes, it seems like that,’ sighed Kit. ‘I have difficulty in seeing the Philipsons as the highest bidders. But I suppose desperation could change things.’

‘You mean they wouldn’t stoop? I tell you, desperation changes almost everything. Well, there’s nobody for you to ask now, is there?’

‘No. Not so far as I know. I think I would have known if my mother had had some kind of confidant – someone she always told everything to.’

‘Have you tried the newspapers?’

‘Yes, the Scottish ones. That’s where I saw the only reference to an abduction. It was a tiny paragraph in my father’s paper, in one of those columns that rakes together this and that. It said that police in Leeds denied reports in a Sunday newspaper that the Novellos had received ransom demands after the abduction of … and so on. About five lines, but that’s how I learnt I’d been abducted. It seemed a strange way to learn.’

‘I found that information just now in our file, of course. There wasn’t a great deal more from newspapers, but I’ve taken copies for you. There’s no reason you shouldn’t have anything that’s been in the press. At least the cuttings show you that you really never did become a national issue.’

He took out a red pen and circled small items in five different newspapers. None of them was a lead story by any means. The longest was two paragraphs.

‘No,’ said Kit ruefully. ‘I’m not going to get
a great deal from newspapers of the time.’

‘I’m a bit surprised at that,’ admitted Hargreaves. ‘The Madeleine McCann case was exceptional, but still, “Angelic, fair-haired English toddler kidnapped in Mafia country” makes a pretty good story.’

‘Yes, I suppose it does … It never felt at the time like I was being stolen. It felt like I was being found a new home. Because that’s what they told me: a new home while my mother was ill.’

‘Don’t you remember anything else about “they”?’

‘No, nothing. I was very young, remember.’

‘Yes, of course. But I am surprised the newspapers didn’t play up the possibility of your being taken by a paedophile ring or some such thing. It was a real possibility, after all … What is it you think we could do for you, sir?’

‘Ah …’ Even after all they’d just discussed Kit found it difficult to be specific. ‘I’m not very clear in my head about that. I take it you’ve got nothing in the police file that could be DNA tested against my DNA?’

‘No, nothing. You’d like to prove that you are who you think you are?’

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