Read A Stranger in the Family Online

Authors: Robert Barnard

A Stranger in the Family (4 page)

‘Something like that. Though no one in the Novello family has questioned that yet.’

‘Try anything of the child’s still in Seldon Road: furry animals, kiddies’ books and so
on. Both are possibilities, but lack of things to compare with is just typical of your problem: for us the kidnapping never became a case. We have on our files mostly bulletins from the Palermo police, translated over there, and sometimes quite incomprehensible. But in general I get the idea that they were telling us that they didn’t want to know – or at least didn’t want us to know. And we accepted that the crime took place on Italian soil, so it was mainly their affair. The Novello family never pushed hard for an investigation. So we did bugger all about it – pardon my Italian.’

‘And yet there is this coincidence – let’s call it that: I came back to British territory, flew back with an escort, with all the dangers of the crime being discovered as we all came through passport control or customs. Somehow, surely, there has to be a British dimension to this?’

‘I think you’re right. But we at the time knew nothing about that, of course.’

Hargreaves seemed to feel that the Leeds police had hardly distinguished themselves and needed to be apologised for.

‘No, no … I’m going to see my birth father as soon as I can. He’s where I got my name from – and possibly a lot more as well.’

‘Novello. Not a common name, though a well-known one. There was a solicitor’s firm with that name in it in Leeds at the time. Not
primarily criminal stuff: wills, divorces, property disputes, compensation claims. Don’t think it exists anymore.’

‘That could be him. He’s in an old people’s home at the moment. People disagree about his condition, but they do seem to agree that he has lucid days, or comparatively lucid ones. It will be a bonus if he’s having one when I go to see him, but I don’t suppose they can be predicted.’

‘I don’t think we can be too much help to you there, sir. But I’ve just wondered—’

‘Yes?’

‘If the fact of your return will lead to new developments, new discoveries or revelations. That could bring a lot of tensions or worse into your little family. I think the best thing we can say at the moment is that we’re aware of you, who you are – or claim to be – and we are interested in seeing the whole abduction matter finally settled. And there’s something you could do, sir.’

‘What’s that?’

‘You could make your connection to the police, your lifeline to us, known as widely as possible, particularly in your family.’

Kit frowned.

‘You think my family were involved in my abduction? The Portuguese police initially thought that in the McCann case, didn’t they? I always considered that was as unlikely as it’s possible to
get. Or do you think they’ll gang up and get rid of me to stop me getting a share of the family’s nest egg? They’d be absolutely top of any list of possible suspects, wouldn’t they? I can see my brother Dan being stupid enough to get involved in that sort of plan, but none of the others.’

Hargreaves quietened him by waving a hefty fist.

‘Maybe. I’m not expecting anything as concrete as that. I’m just thinking what the situation is for your immediate family. They may all have wanted you to be found alive, but in their hearts they didn’t expect that to happen.’

‘Yes. My brother Micky said something along those lines,’ said Kit.

‘So now your miraculous reappearance may mean that the presumption of death is knocked for six, and maybe some well-laid plans based on that presumption are in danger of going the same way. That could put you in danger – see what I mean?’

‘Yes, I do. But I’d bet my last quid against it,’ said Kit. ‘OK, I’ll play up my closeness to the police. I’m a canny Scot, you know, by nature and nurture. I don’t close any avenue.’

But walking out of the Millgarth police station, and then during a wander round the long aisles of Leeds Kirkgate Market close by, Kit thought – as he had done most of the last
two nights – of himself and his relationship with his ‘new’ family. Would he bet his last pound on their being honest?

They had all seemingly coped well with his reappearance – all except Dan, and Kit didn’t feel confident about Dan: how far were his reactions genuine, how far bravado or dramatisations aimed at making a macho impression? He’d know more when he actually met him. His mother had coped admirably, and so had Micky. His sister he was less sure of: perhaps Maria was the sort who never gave anything away, not easily anyway. And then there were Pat, Wendy (not yet part of the family, and probably never would be), Maria’s husband Ivor, so far not met. He thought over this portrait gallery of family members, unsure of what puzzled him, but knowing something did.

As he was waiting at a bus stop it suddenly hit him. They were friendly, natural, interested in his return, but there was no warmth. No joy in having him back with them. They gave every sign that very soon all their lives would go back to being pretty much what they had been hitherto. There should have been, in their reception of him, something of relief, of delight. Yet even in his mother Kit sensed that the expected emotions were missing.

Something was wrong.

C
HAPTER
F
OUR

Father and Son

‘Mr Novello – it’s your visitor.’

The head cleaner at the Four Bells Nursing Home had received him very kindly and walked him along to room number 16, telling him, as she probably told every visitor she opened the door to, that the four bells referred to were the bells of four nearby churches – no doubt comforting reminders of the Four Last Things. The cleaner had opened the door, and Kit had caught the briefest of glimpses of an old man sitting in an armchair before he was on his feet and pottering around to get tea ready.

‘Ah yes. Now you’ll have a cup of tea, won’t you? I know you want to talk to me, though I can’t think why. Just an ordinary solicitor,
sometimes defending people in court, but mostly trying to take the sting out of death and divorce and all the other nightmares the flesh is heir to.’ His face beamed a smile of self-satisfaction. ‘That wasn’t bad, was it? Go down well in court. They say I’m losing my mind, but … Here’s milk and sugar. I gave up sugar, like everyone else. Can’t think why. Right, now take a seat. Oh … you have. Now what did you say your name was?’

Kit was watching him closely. He was a tall, lean figure, rather more Scandinavian than Italian, but his Italian blood would be well diluted after the family’s years in Britain. Or did the Novellos in any case come from the Germanic north of Italy? Kit noted every movement the old man made in his pottering, and decided that there was a strong strain of performance in him. He was a bumbler but he was acting out a bumbler too, a stage version. It seemed to be for his own amusement, but no doubt it acted as some kind of cover as well. The smile on his face as he went about this business was a secret one, not welcoming, but full of self-love and
self-congratulation
.

‘My name when you knew me was Peter Novello,’ Kit said.

The old man nodded.

‘Ah,’ he said. ‘One of my tribe.’

He took out the teeth which Kit had already
identified as false and gave them a perfunctory polish on his shirt, then put them back in his mouth.

‘Not just your tribe,’ said Kit. ‘One of your own family. I am the son of Frank and Isla Novello.’

The claim did not produce any kind of earthquake.

‘Oh, I don’t think so,’ Frank Novello said. ‘I have a son, and I know Michael – see him often. And Dan is in Australia I believe. I hear all about him. Oh no, you’ve got that one wrong.’ He took a large gulp at his tea. ‘But that’s enough about you. Let’s talk a bit about me.’

It was when he said this, with a steely glint in his eye, that Kit knew he was being played with. The mind may have been decaying, but it was the remains of a trained legal mind.

‘That suits me fine,’ Kit said. ‘It’s what I came for. Tell me about your early life.’

‘Oh dear – most unmemorable, you might say dull as ditchwater. Private school – not because I failed the eleven-plus, but because my parents confused it with a public school. I’d have been better off at a state school, but I got into university, studied law, and my parents bought me into a solicitor’s practice.’

‘Where was this?’

‘Oh, Leeds mostly. I’ve always had a strong
sense of place, and I knew all along that my place was Leeds. Connections sometimes took me elsewhere, but I’d say eighty per cent of my business was local.’

‘What sort of people were your parents?’

‘Conventional people: my father Italian-British, but more the latter than the former. Singing “O Sole Mio” was about as Italian as he got. My mother was a pretty little local girl. It was really quite a happy home.’

‘And so when you married you tried to set up a similar close family?’

‘If you say so,’ he said, and then, thinking perhaps that he sounded cynical, perhaps even Machiavellian, he added: ‘We tried at any rate, Isla and I. But as I’m sure you know, it ended in separation, then divorce.’

‘But you were Catholics?’ Kit asked. The old man shrugged.

‘There’s degrees of Catholicism these days as in everything else. You know Italians have 0.9 of a child per family? My Catholicism, like theirs, was of a pretty low degree.’

‘Why did you and Isla separate?’

‘Why does any couple? We grew apart. Sounds horticultural, doesn’t it? Next question.’

‘Was the growing apart caused by the abduction of your child?’

‘That’s a supplementary, not a new question.
In any case I can’t answer it because I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘You must surely know that one of your sons was abducted while you and your family were on holiday in Sicily in 1989?’

‘Don’t remember anything of the sort. Next question.’

‘Can I just tell you something?’ Kit asked. He found himself looking at a lump of carved stone rather than a face of flesh and blood but he carried on. ‘I came back to Leeds three days ago, and went straight to see my … to see my mother. She was delighted to see me, and accepted me at once.’

‘Accepted you? What as? The Tichborne claimant?’

‘I’m afraid I don’t know who the Tichborne claimant is.’

‘A nineteenth-century imposter who passed himself off as someone he wasn’t in an attempt to claim a large inheritance. He failed.’

‘I have no interest in money, no desire to push your other children aside. I have already inherited enough for my needs, and in any case I’m not your eldest son.’

He sounded, even to himself, priggish. Novello sneered.

‘You’re not any kind of son. Do you imagine anything Isla thinks, or anything she does or
does not accept, has any influence on me? We separated fifteen or more years ago, and I’ve never done a better thing. If I had any religion I’d give daily thanks that I decided on it. She has money – money she had from me at the time of the divorce – and she does with it what she likes. Makes it grow, I’d guess, knowing her. Whether I accept your preposterous story is irrelevant to you, and I assure you is something that is never going to happen.’

‘I see,’ said Kit, adding: ‘What are you afraid of?’

‘Of being bored out of my mind by getting involved in a futile and dubious controversy. Isn’t it time you were going?’

‘If you want me to,’ said Kit. ‘By the way, I haven’t mentioned I have memories of you.’

‘Bully for you.’

‘I have memories of your feet, in soft slippers which you had trodden down at the heel.’

‘Photograph all the old men in this hellhole and I guarantee three-quarters of them will have similar slippers to these.’ He kicked his feet out towards Kit, crowing at the downtrodden nature of their heels. Kit began to gather together his things, watched by a sardonically grinning father. ‘Didn’t get what you wanted, did you?’

‘No,’ said Kit, proffering his hand. It was ignored. He shrugged and went to the door.
When it was opened and he himself halfway through it he heard the old man in the chair shouting: ‘Come again soon.’ And as the door shut on the father of his memories he heard: ‘But not too soon.’

Outside in the corridor Kit rested his briefcase on a small table and took a great breath of nursing home air into his lungs. That had not been the reunion with his father he had been preparing himself for emotionally. It was as if something – a box of delicious chocolates perhaps – had been snatched away from him at the last moment.

‘In one of his moods, was he?’

The voice was that of the plump, comfortable woman who had brought him to his father’s room. It was hardly more than ten minutes ago, but he was glad to see her again. He shook his head.

‘I suppose that’s what it was. He denied knowing who I was, denied having a son who was abducted—’

‘That’s you, is it?’

‘Yes. I was abducted in Sicily when I was three. After denying the facts he more or less threw me out, and called after me, “Come again soon.” Is he mad in the clinical sense, rather than “mad” in the sense of pretty strange?’

‘Search me. I just clean and do odd jobs.
He’s done this before, with people he had no strong connection with: former clients, a partner, that kind of thing. Maybe it’s just his sense of humour. Reacting against years in a dull and despised job.’

Kit thought this through, and thought it an intelligent suggestion.

‘Maybe you’re right. If only I’d had a bit longer …’

‘Since he said “come again” you could do just that. Well, I’d better be—’

But she was interrupted by the door of his father’s room opening, and a red and cross face peering out.

‘Where’s some more hot water for my tea, woman? By the time you bring it it’ll be stone cold. Stop talking to strange men and do your bloody job.’

He slammed the door shut. The cleaner smiled at Kit and went into the kitchen. Kit raised his hand, then put the atmosphere and smell of the nursing home behind him.

He gave an account of the nursing home visit the next day when he had lunch in the Vesper Gate near Kirkstall Abbey with Micky. It was well rehearsed and orderly because he had already put together an account of it for Sergeant Hargreaves. His elder brother justified his reputation by picking unenthusiastically
at a hamburger, obviously preferring the accompanying chips. Kit ate a prawn salad, knowing that he would be eating with Isla that night. The account did not take long, since the visit had been such a short one. Micky kept nodding, with a sort of delight on his face.

‘Yes, he’d do that when I started going to see him. Denied ever having seen me before, denied having been married and had children – then dredging up memories of us all as young kids.’

‘Us all?’ Kit queried.

‘Well, no, I can’t remember that he ever mentioned you, Kit. But think: you’d been out of the family’s ken for years by then.’

‘Perhaps you could jog his memory next time you go.’

‘I’ll do that, but it’ll have to be done carefully. He knows if you have something you want from him and he clams up, determined not to give it.’

‘What do you think of that cleaner’s notion that he’s compensating for a very dull professional life?’

‘I like it … Or at least, I rather wonder whether he hasn’t been doing that all his life.’

‘What makes you say that?’

Micky thought, then asked a question.

‘What did he tell you about his practice as a lawyer?’

‘He said it consisted of dull stuff – divorce,
wills, broken contracts and so on, or that’s what I understood him to be saying. All centring on Leeds, naturally.’

‘Yes,’ said Micky, who’d got the answer he expected. ‘But even in the last years of his living with us in Seldon Road, the thing we children noticed was how seldom he was with us. He was doing a hell of a lot of business in somewhere that wasn’t Leeds – that’s what I think now, anyway.’

‘Why not some other obliging lady kept in a snug little flat in Headingley or Pudsey?’

‘I don’t think he’d have done it in Leeds,’ said Micky thoughtfully. ‘My understanding of him is that all his professional life he was a cautious man – hiding his less respectable, less professional sides. A fancy woman in some other Northern town – well yes, maybe. All very discreet it would have been … The thing is, I have a memory—’

‘Yes?’

‘It must have been the first two or three years after he moved out of Seldon Road and before he ditched us as a family. He dropped us, and my memory is that we children didn’t mind very much. Still, it left a gap, and it left us with a lot of questions we’d like to have asked but never got a chance to.’

‘Yes – I know the feeling,’ said Kit.

‘Anyway, it must have been in those two years or so when there was still some contact with us children, and I was walking with him in the centre of Leeds – Park Row I think it was, and we were on the way from a pizza together to a rugby league game – anyway, someone grabbed his arm, and said, “Hi, Frank, what are you doing in Leeds? I phoned you last week and they said you were on vacation.”’

‘That must have been a surprise,’ said Kit.

‘I thought it must have been a mistake – he’d mistaken Dad for someone else. But then I remembered he’d got the Christian name right. And then my dad gestured to me to go a few feet away, and he immediately began a
hush-hush
conversation with this man: heads lowered to be closer together, voices very low, me and the rest of Leeds shut out. I heard nothing of what they said beyond a few words: it was all lost in the roar of the traffic coming from City Square.’

‘But what did you make of it?’ Kit asked.

‘I didn’t, frankly. But for some reason – I suppose because it turned my dad into a man of mystery – the incident remained in my mind, and when we tried to understand why the divorce had meant we kept one parent and lost the other (we all knew kids at school who’d had parents divorced but kept good contact with both),
that meeting surfaced in my mind, and we kids discussed it without getting very far.’

‘So Maria and Dan knew of it?’

‘Oh yes. It was part of our family folklore. Not that we got anywhere finding a meaning for it, like I say.’

‘What did you decide?’

‘Me, the one who saw it, and so really the one in the best position to understand it, I decided my father was running a double life, but it was a professional life, not an emotional or sexual one.’

‘I’ve never heard of solicitors who played away from home in their professional lives,’ said Kit. ‘It sounds rather unlikely.’

‘Fair enough. What did I know about life, professional or emotional? I was eleven or twelve.’

‘What do you really think about your dad now?’

Micky shrugged.

‘Like I say: what do I know? I was ten or so, I think, when he left us, so I have a fair number of early memories: Christmases, games of cricket, holidays. Since then I have these few fragments of memory like the one I’ve just mentioned, and then the experience of visiting him for the last two years, when I can’t make out how mad he is, or how sane. I’m playing in the dark.’

‘And what is your guess?’

Micky thought.

‘I’ve tried to exclude anything said by Mum, and truth to tell she doesn’t say a great deal about him. But one thing she always comes back to if his name comes up is: “He’s selfish. It’s self, self, self all the time, and no one else is allowed to get a look-in.” I can imagine that’s true. He plays with people. When he played with you yesterday, was there any sign of his regretting those little games before you left? No, I thought not. Just relish at having had a good time. It’s the same with the rest of the family: we were cast off because we were no use in his self-promotional efforts.’

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