Read A Stranger in the Family Online

Authors: Robert Barnard

A Stranger in the Family (8 page)

‘They met? Talked?’

‘Yes. I gather my Leeds birth father was prominent in peace talks among the various Glasgow gangs – the ice cream wars and so on. Often there would be a wholly or partially Italian component to these groups, and their disagreements were most often about territories: which should be serviced by which ice cream vendor. Sounds absurd, but that was the truth of it. That’s how they began, though they burgeoned into something much bigger. A British legal man with Italian as one of his languages could be very useful when peace talks had been arranged.’

‘Yes – and you’re saying he could have got closer to some of the big names in the gangs than he ought to have done?’

‘Yes. Perhaps he was compromised in some way, and was forced into things he detested. Perhaps he simply used the gangs himself, having acquired a lot of influence through his apparently above-board work negotiating and peacemaking. It’s a mystery, but one we have a chance of solving as he’s still alive. The only point I’m making is that he is very likely a link.’

‘And did something happen at this meeting I
was apparently at that illustrated his connection with the gangs?’

‘Not quite that. But it suggested some connection between my birth father and Jürgen. They talked in the coffee break of this meeting—’

‘At such meetings everybody talks.’

‘Yes, but something must have been said that angered my … angered Jürgen. I think my birth father approached Jürgen for a second time that day in the lunch break and for once my father couldn’t hide his emotions. When he saw who was about to accost him again, I’m told his face showed absolute detestation, and he turned away – frozen-faced again – to avoid my father and any further contact between them.’

‘I see,’ said Leo thoughtfully. ‘Could it be that it was at this time that Jürgen learnt who you actually were?’

‘I suppose it’s possible. There’s a slightly
dog-eared
note under the name Novello in Jürgen’s address book – “Kit’s mother” is all it says – enough, I suppose, but no date is given.’

‘Tell me,’ said Kappstein, ‘what you know about Jürgen’s birth father and mother.’

Kit raised his eyebrows in surprise.

‘Very little. His mother died, it’s thought, in Auschwitz or perhaps Dachau. His father, I believe – I don’t know – was still alive seven or eight years ago, though if so he must have been
very old. Maybe bedridden or mentally disturbed and unable to travel. I am guessing here, of course. All I have to go on are those few words, which I don’t actually remember, of my father’s. Something like, “I ought to go and see him.” Or maybe, “I’d like to go and see him.”’

‘Yes … I feel most at home with the Jewish side of your parentage, though I understand a fair bit of Scottish mores and opinions by now, and even Italians sometimes have revealed their mysteries to me. But I can try to find in the archives anything I may have on your father’s birth family.’

‘Yes please. I suppose you don’t know his name …’

‘Oh, but I do. Your father was a Horovitz, and at the time of his birth his father was known as Samuel Horovitz and his mother as Lisabeth. Apart from the genuine name, your grandfather called himself all sorts of things, Greenspan among them – I found it quite bewildering, but I’ll find my way around his various personae eventually. I’ve made a start. I took the trouble to look up your father after I had your phone call last night which arranged this meeting. Until I lose my marbles you will find me quite boringly well organised and terribly well informed.’

‘Do you know what happened to my grandfather?’

‘He was not one of nature’s victims. There were a lot of rumours, but no rumour of his being in one of the German camps.’

‘What did the rumours concern?’

‘East European countries mostly. Hungary, Romania, for example. Both places where Jews were persecuted – had been for centuries – but the persecution intensified when the political leaders of the countries became Fascists. But the most frequent place of refuge and the subject of most rumours about your grandfather was Italy.’

‘That surprises me,’ said Kit, shifting uneasily in his chair. ‘Mussolini was Hitler’s henchman, surely. Fleeing to Italy would be going from the frying pan into the fire.’

Kappstein shook his head.

‘Not quite. Mussolini was Hitler’s ally, several steps down as a Fascist leader of importance. This riled him. He had a ten-year lead in the catalogue of Fascist countries; he’d given the world the word and many of the ideas – that’s what the poor man thought – he was Europe’s inspiration. It’s often said he was lukewarm in the persecution of the Jews. There’s some truth in that, but it was not a matter of conscience or tender-heartedness. He just saw it as one of Hitler’s pointless obsessions. He thought it was better to screw money out of them.’

‘What changed his mind?’

‘The course of the war. By the time of the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943 he had no future except tied to Hitler’s chariot wheels, and he soon realised that wholesale spoliation of the Italian Jews’ fortunes was a wonderful source of revenue, and he began that with energy and efficiency.’

‘Right,’ said Kit slowly. ‘So if my grandfather didn’t land up in the German camps he could have died in their Italian equivalents.’

‘Possible. But far fewer of the Italian Jews died. And if we are right about his activities, they were always on the windy side of the law. If he was in Italy, if he was incarcerated there, what should such a man have done?’

Kit thought.

‘Teamed up with his Italian equivalents? The Mafia, the Camorra, all sorts of small and large gangsters.’

‘Yes, exactly. And rumour has him in a camp called Ferramonti in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies – the old kingdom centred on Naples, and including Sicily and the bottom of mainland Italy, the part of Italy that was liberated fairly early by the Allies.’

‘This does begin to sound promising.’

‘But remember to be careful. This is almost conjecture, supported only by rumour. Courage and caution, that’s what you must show.
I want to help you, and I will do, so long as I am mentally active. Remember, a lot of my information is inconvenient to the people who consult me. For example, your grandfather used a series of different names – practically a new name every time he went to a new city. Up to no good? Probably. The name he bequeathed to his children was Greenspan, but as I have discovered, that was not his real or legal name.’

‘I’ll remember that.’

‘Good. Being a pedant, even about births and deaths rather than grammar, is a very inconvenient thing. But it may prevent you going off into cul-de-sacs, that I can promise you.’

But, leaving the bungalow in the afternoon sunlight, Kit felt torn between contrary emotions. He had liked Leo Kappstein. On the other hand he had a niggling sense that the man was holding back on something, perhaps even playing with him. And he had been shocked by Leo’s admission that for him he, Kit, a non-Jew, was not part of Jürgen’s ‘family’. He was quite sure Jürgen had not felt the same. But then he was of another generation.

And what was it that had really made his father’s life ‘difficult’?

C
HAPTER
E
IGHT

Undercurrents

‘Peter!’ said Isla, when she opened her front door to her son two days later.

‘Isla!’ said Kit. They embraced, but the two words left a legacy of embarrassment which it took some time to dispel. Isla looked at the two smallish suitcases her son was carrying and definitely had to smother feelings of disappointment.

‘Oh good, you’ve brought some of your things,’ she said.

‘Just a few,’ said Kit. ‘So that I have two sets of the important things when I’m here.’

‘Yes … I’ve had a second set of keys made for you,’ said Isla, but carefully, as if she knew she was on delicate terrain. Kit responded a shade too enthusiastically.

‘Great! Though I’m not sure I ought to treat this house as my own, barging in whenever I feel like it.’

‘You barge in, Kit. You can’t interrupt anything important, or anything I’d blush to have you see for that matter. Now, you go up and unpack your things and we’ll have a nice drink before dinner. Gin and tonic suit you?’

‘Fine.’

‘And I’ve got pork fillet for dinner.’ She noticed or imagined that a shadow passed over his face as she spoke. ‘Oh dear! Have I done something silly?’

‘No, not at all. I eat pork, ham and all that stuff – always have. My mother wasn’t Jewish, as you know, and Dad was a sort of halfway Jew. That meant we didn’t have it that often for dinner, so it’s a sort of treat. Pork fillet will be fine.’

And certainly when he came to eat it Isla could detect no sign of nausea or hesitation. Before that, over the gin and tonics with the obligatory lemon, Isla asked how things had gone in Glasgow.

‘Fine. I got things done in connection with my mother’s will – things that needed sorting out.’ On an impulse he ventured on a half-truth. ‘And I heard one or two things about my father that I want to look into.’

‘Which father?’

Looking quickly up and then down Kit saw that Isla’s face was flushed a blood-red.

‘Jürgen Philipson. It was just an incident, something that happened at one of those
do-gooding
conferences he was often a delegate at. I’ve learnt that he made it clear, without a word spoken, that he had the strongest objections to another of the delegates. The whole encounter was so unlike my father’s usual self that it made me think. Why would he have been so upset? I’m going to try to find out who that other person was, and if he could have had anything to do with my “adoption”.’

‘Isn’t that a terribly long shot? Why should your father have anything against someone who helped him to get you? I should have thought he’d be eternally grateful.’

She was now her usual colour. Kit looked straight into her eyes.

‘I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that a good man – as my father was – would be the last person on earth who would want to benefit from a child abduction.’

Isla swallowed.

‘Yes, of course. If he knew—’

‘There are all sorts of possibilities: for example, that he did not know how I’d been taken from my birth parents, but he found out from the man he immediately took an aversion
to. By that time, by the way, I must have been about fifteen, so it would have been a bit of an academic question: they’d surely never have taken me away from my adoptive parents?’

‘Who wouldn’t?’

That pulled Kit up in his tracks.

‘Well, I suppose I mean the police – or the authorities generally. Oddly enough I really know very little about adoption. And the abduction would still have been a police matter, even though it happened a long time before and the British police had always left matters to the Italian police. By the time they’d got anywhere, if they ever did, I’d have been practically of legal age for sure.’

Later, when they were eating apple crumble, Isla said: ‘I wish I understood why you’re doing all this rummaging about in the past. What good is it going to do? Why can’t you just accept the facts: you were stolen from me, and landed up somehow as the adopted child of people you liked and respected. Not a too dreadful fate, was it?’

‘No, of course not … Remember, Isla, that the first step in this “rummaging” – I’d prefer to call it amateur detective work – was finding you. As soon as I knew that Genevieve was not my birth mother, finding you became my aim: to find my real mother and to know who I was, and
how it happened. And to try to lessen the pain you must have felt at losing your young child.’

‘I realise that, and I’m glad and grateful.’

‘And I found out how it was done, the abduction, and I’m glad to know. But the question arises: how did I come to belong to Jürgen and Genevieve? How would they connect with Sicilian kidnappers? How did I get from Sicily to Glasgow?’

‘Of course, I don’t know,’ said Isla, now more subdued. ‘Till you turned up I had no idea where you were or who you were with.’

‘No, you didn’t – couldn’t have. Even after they knew about your identity, or began to have suspicions, Jürgen and Genevieve couldn’t have made contact with you, for fear of losing me. And, of course, I understand that it’s not as important to you to know the details as it is to me. I want to know to fill in gaps in my knowledge of the past, but also to understand the psychology of what happened. How did two high-minded, law-abiding citizens come to acquire a child in so dubious a way? How did they come to profit by a crime they would have abhorred?’

‘It’s a mystery,’ said Isla, now almost complacent. ‘But I don’t see that you had anything to do with it. You were too young. Isn’t it time you got on with your life and stopped
worrying about what happened in the past and why? I know that’s what I would do.’

‘Well, maybe that’s what I will be forced to do if I get nowhere. But it’s definitely second best. I know I won’t feel happy and complete unless I’ve tried to make sense of it all.’

Isla shook her head.

‘Well, I’ll hold my peace. You’re not going to take advice from a silly old woman, I realise that.’

Kit shook his head and grinned.

‘You don’t regard yourself as silly, Isla, and I’m pretty sure you don’t see yourself as old either.’ They both laughed. ‘And neither do I.’

As they were preparing for bed Isla tentatively asked Kit what he was going to do the next day.

‘I thought of driving into Leeds,’ he said. ‘They say it’s very hard to find your way around, so I thought I’d make a start.’

‘Oh, that’s a good idea. You can take my car.’

‘But I don’t need to. I have my car. I drove down.’

Isla left a pause, obviously not trusting herself to speak. It was clear that Kit’s paucity of luggage was doubly painful to her if he had had a car to load it into.

‘Of course. You’d have inherited the Philipsons’ car, wouldn’t you?’

‘Yes. We sold Jürgen’s soon after he died.
Genevieve’s is the car I learnt to drive in. I drove it a lot in the last few months of her life, when we were going to all her favourite places. Is there anything I can do for you tomorrow in Leeds?’

‘Oh no, I don’t think so,’ said Isla, still sounding a bit miffed.

However, by the next day she had changed her mind, and had a job for him.

‘I’ve got this cake I made and iced for the Leeds Ladies’ Guild. It’s our fiftieth anniversary. Formed when dear old Harold Macmillan was prime minister by Leeds ladies who thought the Women’s Institutes weren’t good enough for them. We’re all baking something and Ada Micklejohn said she’d take it for me because I can’t go. Well, won’t, more like. I don’t go along much these days. It was my excrement of a husband who persuaded me to join, but I never felt at home with the Leeds Ladies – not my style at all. Ada lives in The Calls. I’ll give you a map. And you must let her show you her books.’

‘Her books? Is she a collector? Or an academic?’

‘The first if anything,’ said Isla, hardly bothering to hide an overtone of contempt. ‘Be respectful. And don’t say rude things about Barbara Cartland.’

‘Why on earth would I say rude things about
Barbara Cartland? I barely know who she was.’

‘And don’t say that either.’

Kit, with the aid of Isla’s map and rather more aid from his
A to Z
street directory, found The Calls without difficulty, and a parking space through divine intervention. He spoke his identity (‘I’m Isla’s son’) into the list of tenants on the door and was rewarded by a ‘Oh, do come up. The door’s open. It’s the cake isn’t it?’ He pushed open the street door and by following directions found his way to flat 237, Ada’s home. When he rang the bell the door was opened immediately and Ada Micklejohn appeared, apparently already in full flood. Kit had a vision of shiny silk drapes and caked make-up while the melting-chocolate voice flowed into one ear and out the other.

‘I got in right at the beginning here in The Calls, and this flat is one of the biggest, and I didn’t pay a fortune for it, far from it, but I’ve always had an eye for a bargain, that’s what you need these days, lovely that Isla has you back, how were things wherever it was you’ve been? No don’t tell me, my travelling days are over, did Isla tell you I’ve got two flats here? I snapped up the one next door the moment it came on the market, here – just have a look because you’re sure to sneer, now don’t say you won’t because I know you will, know by experience, particularly
young men, but here we are, three rooms with nothing but my collection …’ She threw open the door and Kit was greeted by a room totally devoted to books, climbing to the ceiling, supplemented by free-standing bookcases and boxes containing as yet unclassified items to be shelved later.

‘Ah,’ he said, remembering Isla’s words, ‘a library of romantic fiction.’

‘Not of romantic fiction generally, that’s beyond my scope, no, this, young fellow, is the world’s largest collection of Mills & Boon, with only a hundred and fifty-seven titles yet to be found. I’ve got people scouring the world, devoted lovers of really good writing, and what a collection of happiness after misery along the way the whole collection will represent, and so much learning, remember dear Barbara Cartland saying, “I was trained as a historian”, and what knowledge she put into her historicals! I worship her, and always so tastefully presented’ – she threw a hand in the direction of the collection, with many volumes facing outwards to display the execrable artwork that would certainly have had Genevieve Philipson either shuddering or laughing.

‘I’m not sure I could take all those happy endings,’ said Kit. ‘My mother once said there was nothing so depressing as a happy ending.
You think of all the disillusionment in store for the couple.’

‘Don’t you believe your crabby mother,’ said Ada, and Kit carefully restrained himself from correcting her on which mother he had been talking about. ‘She’s a particular case, and I’ve nothing to say to excuse your father, that’s for sure, but your mother had her revenge, and she had a lot of happiness over the years from you children that’s for sure, and I know how happy you’ve made her, how she’s revelled in your success, are you going to marry that girl of yours, do you think she’s worthy of you? Your mother doesn’t, I’m sure you know that, but what mother ever does? Eh? I think she’ll be over the moon to have you back, put the cake down there, will you?’ They had come into the main flat, which was decorated in Regency style with – again, and most unfortunately – the originals of Mills & Boon covers ruining the atmosphere on the walls. ‘You won’t have a cup of tea, will you, or something stronger? No, I can see it in your face, you won’t go and see your father, will you? I know Micky does – Micky’s the only one of you I’ve met – I don’t know why he should, or you either, or the other one whose name I forget, you owe him nothing, that’s for sure, and when they separated your mother had all the burden and he barely acknowledged his family’s
existence, not just the one but all of you, I know that because Isla told me herself, now you will come again, won’t you, there’s so much I can show you.’

‘I will, I will,’ said Kit, not altogether untruthfully, disappearing down the corridors. In fact, he had been disappearing out the door when the full significance of what Ada was saying – of everything Ada had said – was brought home to him. Kit slowed down, let himself thoughtfully out of the maze of flats, and went and sat in his car, wondering what to do next.

He had passed by the police headquarters in the city on his search to find a parking space. He felt pretty sure it was not far away. After weighing up the pros and cons he left the car where it was, locating the station by its closeness to the bus terminal. When he went up to the desk to ask for Sergeant Hargreaves the desk man was on the blower to him in a trice. The looming, going-to-seed figure of the sergeant appeared promptly, and led Kit off to find one of the interview rooms.

‘I can see something has happened,’ said Hargreaves. ‘I can see it in your face.’

‘Not exactly happened,’ said Kit. ‘But I think I may have made a discovery. Whether it’s important or not I don’t think I’m the best one to judge.’

‘Spill the beans.’

Kit told him the gist of the meeting, cutting down on Ada’s devotion to romantic fiction. (‘My wife reads Mills & Boon,’ said the sergeant. ‘Women’s rubbish. She says they show her what she’s been missing all these years.’) When he finished Hargreaves stretched his legs in the chair.

‘Well!’ he said.

‘Yes. When we talked about Isla having me back I thought she’d been told about my reappearance by Isla. But then she talked about my “success” and my girlfriend (I haven’t got one at the moment that Isla knows about). I was just going out the door when I realised she was confusing me with Dan. It could be useful in the future if that’s what she thinks. She might talk about “Peter”, as they call me, more openly, without inhibitions. Whether that would actually be useful is another matter. The confusion of the two sons is symptomatic of a general confusion in Ada’s mind, which probably Isla doesn’t understand or at least take any notice of. One tends to switch off in the general flood of talk, going from subject to subject. For example, what do you make of what she said about my father?’

Hargreaves stretched again, and thought hard before he replied.

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