“PA wanted for live-in position. Call for details.”
I was 35, bored with doing temporary office jobs, newly single and two days away from being homeless, so when I saw this ad in the Evening Standard I picked up the phone immediately. After all, I had nothing to lose. I was met with the voice of an elderly woman, who asked if I could come by that same evening to meet “Mr Cocozza.”
The address I was given took me to Lennox Gardens, within short proximity to Harrods. I misjudged the distance and arrived a little too late, ended up running to the right of the confined gardens in the middle of the square and up the stone stairs to the main door. I’d been told to ring the bell that said “Cocozza” and to go to the 4th floor. I came panting up the stairs as soon as I’d been buzzed in, only to find the door open. I knocked, waited, peaked through the door and saw a male with salt and pepper, wavy hair and a full beard – that was grey around the mouth and darker along his cheeks – standing in the hallway.
‘Mr Cocozza, I’m sorry, I was told to come here at seven and I know I’m late but…’
‘Hello. You’re right on time. Do come in,’ he said calmly in an American accent with a slight British twang. ‘And please, call me Alfredo.’
I closed the door behind me and walked up to him. He was a few inches taller than I, at about 5’10 inches, and of slightly stocky build. He was immaculately dressed in a tailor made blue suit, a white shirt and red tie. He cocked his head slightly and smiled vaguely. There was something about in his eyes that intrigued me. They were dark brown, velvety – and playful. Like they belonged to a much younger man.
‘My mother was called Maria,’ he said as he shook my hand. ‘Would you like some tea, Maria? I put the kettle on in anticipation of your arrival.’
‘Follow me. You spoke with my housekeeper, Mrs Connelly, earlier on this afternoon. She only comes in once a week, every Friday. Is green tea with lemon OK?’ I just nodded as he turned to look at me. ‘Why do you want this position?’
‘What is the position?’
‘In short, I have a weak heart. Most of the time I don’t notice, I just have episodes where I get out of breath and sometimes pass out as a result. I’m on a donor list for a transplant, which could happen in a week or in a year. I’m on medication, which should sustain me until a suitable heart comes up. What I ask is that you’re within reach and if you go out, that you bring the mobile phone in case. I’m afraid that it’s rather large, and weighs nearly two pounds, but hopefully it won’t be too much of a bother. How does this sound?’
Now you’re probably thinking, “Wait… a two pound mobile phone? Surely this must have been a few years ago?” – and you’d be right. It was a while ago. September 1985 to be exact.
‘But I don’t have any medical training or anything…?’
‘You don’t need medical training. You may need to use a phone on occasion, though.’
‘I think I can manage that. So do you want the truth why I want this position?’
He smiled, leaned against the kitchen top and folded his arms in front of him. ‘Please.’
‘I’m bored at work and I’m homeless in two days.’
On Sunday evening I moved into one of Alfredo’s spare bedrooms in Lennox Gardens. I still couldn’t believe that I’d been offered free food and lodging in addition to a staggering £500 a week. I’d been an au-pair in my youth and had got £50 a week for four children. The idea that he could collapse and die in front of my eyes made me feel ever so slightly uncomfortable, but there was something about him that I liked. An hour or so after I’d settled in, there was a careful knock on my door.
‘Would you care to join me for dinner downstairs?’
‘Of course. I’d be delighted.’
‘It will be ready in about ten minutes.’
He was wearing trousers and a woollen sweater. Not quite as dressed up as when we first met, but he still looked pretty immaculate. I wondered if I was required to dress up in order to go to dinner, so I dug out a dress and a pair of two inch heels before I made my way down to the dining room. When I saw him I was glad I had, as he had exchanged his sweater for a shirt and tie. When I walked into the room he smiled approvingly.
‘You look lovely,’ he stated and pulled up a chair for me. He had set the table, that could comfortably seat six, so that we sat on opposite sides with three-armed candlestick between us. ‘I hope you like Italian, as that’s going to be a big part of what I serve.’
‘I love it. You’re the cook, I presume?’
‘I am. It relaxes me. If you have any particular wishes or dietary requirements, just let me know. I have a list in the kitchen that you can add items to, should you wish.’
‘Thank you. I feel like I should be doing something…’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll let you know if I need anything. Meanwhile, may I offer you some wine?’
We spent the next ten minutes ingesting a fabulous pasta carbonara with a splendid red that complimented it perfectly.
‘Were you ever married, Mr Cocoz… sorry, Alfredo?’ I corrected myself as he shot me an amused “what did I tell you?” glance across the table.
‘Certainly. I was married from I was 24 until she passed away from an accidental overdose 14 years later. But that’s a story for another time. Cheers,’ he said and lifted his glass. ‘I’m very happy that you’ve accepted my offer to stay here.’
‘I’m very happy that you made the offer, based on the fact that I have no previous experience other than using a phone,’ I chuckled. He smiled heartily – and in the dim light from the candle, as he made eye contact with me, I could see glimpses of what an attractive man he must have been in his youth. He had impossibly high cheekbones and even under his beard I could tell that he had dimples. The eyes were not just playful, they were almost a little devilish. His smile was childish and yet seductive, his teeth slightly imperfect but well kept and white.
‘Allow me to walk you to your room?’ he asked as we put the empty plates in the kitchen. We ascended the stairs, side by side, his hand resting on the small of my back. It was warm and steady, never moving beyond anything that would be considered appropriate. By my door I turned around and faced him, leaving us lingering for a few seconds until he leaned in and placed one soft kiss on each of my cheeks – Italian style. As he took a step back, but still held his hands on the top of my arms, he offered one of his half-smiles and a “goodnight” before descending the stairs to his own room.
I had to admit that I was feeling intoxicated by him.
I was woken up the next morning by a gentle knock on my door. I sat up and looked at the clock hanging on the opposite wall. It was 8am on the dot. I realised then that we hadn’t agreed on when I was required to start, but that this was clearly it. I put on a pair of trousers and opened the door. On the floor was a tray with a tea pot and cup, a small milk jar, sugar, lemon, two pieces of toast, butter, ham and a daisy in a vase. Between the tea pot and the vase there was a handwritten note.
Would you mind joining me for a walk in about an hour? Meanwhile, please enjoy your breakfast and feel free to take a relaxing bath.
How very civilised, I smiled to myself and brought the tray back inside the room. As I sat down at the little desk in front of the window and consumed my breakfast, watching the sun set over London, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was just a one-time welcome gesture.
I grew more and more intrigued by my employer, and was genuinely excited to find out more about him. If I was to guess I’d have said that he was somewhere in the region between 55 and 70, but it was difficult to tell. He had lines but smooth ones, he was silver grey in places but not so much that I couldn’t see that he used to have dark brown, perhaps even black, hair. He had a tan, but if he was Italian that would be natural. He was walking upright and with ease, so I was leaning towards closer to 50 than 70 – yet there was something old-fashioned about him that might mean that he was older than he looked.
As I walked down the stairs, I couldn’t help but notice that there were no pictures of people on his walls. He had large paintings by famous artists, but no family or friends. Or of himself. I was dying to see what he had looked like when he was my age, as I suspected he had been quite a stunner. He was still charming, so I could only imagine that he had been able to pick and choose. There were literally no clues anywhere as to what kind of life he had lead. Not anywhere.
‘Good morning,’ he said as I entered what I presumed was the drawing room. It had a fireplace, three large windows, two chairs and a table.
‘Good morning. Thank you for breakfast, that was really thoughtful.’
‘Don’t mention it. I realised that we had not agreed on a time to meet, so I thought I would wake you gently. Perhaps we can agree to meet here at 9am for the rest of this week? I like to start my day with a walk, and I’m told I shouldn’t go great distances by myself. Unless you think nine is too early?’
‘Not at all. I’ve been used to getting up at 7am in order to be at work for 9am. Being ready for nine is pretty much a holiday.’
‘I’m glad you feel that way. Shall we?’