Alfredo was a little reserved at first. Not so much shy as just… sussing me out. He asked no invasive questions, normally picked topics of discussion for our walks that involved what he’d read in the Guardian or seen on the news – so I learned that in order to not come off as a complete idiot I had to at least listen to the morning news on the radio and read the paper with my breakfast. Other than our daily walks and at meal times, I didn’t see that much of him. He was usually in the drawing room reading, but was always up for a conversation if I wanted one. He opened doors, stood up if I came into a room, sat down last, pulled up a chair… a classic, old-fashioned gentleman.
A week or so later I opened my bedroom door at quarter to nine, only to find a breakfast tray with another note:
Would you mind joining me to Rome tomorrow for a few days? There’s a place I’d like to revisit.
I realised quickly that this was a man that enjoyed travelling as comfortably as possible. We took a taxi to Heathrow, got on a direct flight to Rome that he slept on and a man took us to a waiting car as soon as we arrived. Alfredo, unsurprisingly, spoke fluent Italian and exchanged what I presumed were pleasantries in the half an hour drive to the centre of Rome. I noticed that he only got one room and wondered if I was expected to crawl into a double bed with him, but I needn’t have worried. As soon as he opened the door it became apparent that we indeed had separate sleeping quarters as well as a living room and kitchen.
‘I’m going to take a nap, if you don’t mind,’ he sighed and headed for one of the bedrooms. I noticed that he was walking like he was dizzy, so I followed him and held onto his arm. He stopped for a moment and smiled at me. ‘This is nothing to worry about,’ he said smoothly. ‘I just need to lie down.’
‘Make a stop here,’ I said firmly and steered him in the direction of the sofa that was only six feet away. He didn’t object, just collapsed onto the brown leather and closed his eyes. I fetched a glass of water from the kitchen, a cold wet cloth from the bathroom and knelt beside him as I put it on his forehead. I slid my hand underneath his neck and he was soaking wet with sweat, so I got a bigger wet towel and put his head on it. In an instant he looked pale and fragile. I put my hand in his and gently patted his forehead with one of the towels. A few minutes later he opened his eyes and looked at me.
‘Thank you very much,’ he whispered. ‘It would have been OK, but thank you.’
‘Here, have some water,’ I suggested and slid my arm underneath his neck so he could put his head on my shoulder and elevate himself enough to take a sip of water without spilling. His beard brushed the side of my neck and for a few minutes he rested his head there, his breath tickling my skin.
‘Thank you,’ he muttered again and didn’t object when I retracted my arm and replaced it with a sofa pillow. It was thirty degrees outside so I only covered him up with a light sheet and picked up a proper pillow from his room. I didn’t want to leave him, so I made myself comfortable on the other side of the sofa with a book so that I could keep an eye.
He seemed comfortable and slept for just over two hours before opening his eyes and looking at me. Without a word he sat up, touched his forehead and winced.
‘Can I get you anything?’
‘Perhaps a couple of Paracetamols.’
I got up, sat down next to him and put my hand on his forehead. ‘Your temperature is down.’
‘Thank you, my dear.’ He looked directly at me and held my gaze. I wanted to look away but it felt like time stood still and I’d been hypnotised. He slowly slid both his hands up my arms and took a deep breath before looking down. ‘I apologise.’
‘What for?’ I asked, my voice barely audible. He didn’t respond, just stood up and went for the bathroom. I leaned backwards rested my neck against the leather cushion. It made no sense why I would feel like this with a man who was significantly older than I – but there was something about him that was… different. He was highly sensitive and intense, clearly very intelligent and just mysterious enough to intrigue me beyond what it should do. Was I seriously attracted to a man who was probably closer to my parents’ age than mine? Sure, I’d said for a while that my next man was going to be “more mature” but I wasn’t sure that this was what I’d had in mind.
‘Should we go out for dinner?’ he asked as he exited the bathroom, drying his hair with a towel.
‘As long as you’re feeling better?’
‘Much, thank you. Should we meet back here in twenty minutes?’
I nodded and we vanished into our respective bedrooms. I unpacked my dress and shoes, and was about to change when there was a light knock on my door. I opened up and there he was, buttoning the sleeves in his shirt. When I appeared in the doorway he cocked his head and looked like he’d done something wrong and wanted to confess.
‘I just want to say something. I don’t want you to think of me as a dirty, old man who thinks it’s OK to take liberties with young ladies such as yourself. Believe me, if I was twenty years younger I wouldn’t be apologising for anything… but I’m not. I think you’re absolutely stunning. Forgive me.’
I had two choices. I could accept his apology and leave it at that, or… not. Before I had a chance to decide, he had turned around and headed back to his own room. I watched his back in the white shirt and couldn’t help but notice his broad shoulders and upper back. He was stocky but well-built, even for someone his age. I shook my head and closed the door. I had to drop it – but I had to admit that I didn’t hate what he’d called me.
After dinner he wanted to go for a walk to clear his head. I didn’t think he had a destination in mind, but when he stopped outside a yellow building that looked like a clinic about twenty minutes north of Villa Borghese I realised I’d been wrong.
‘This was where I died the first time.’
‘This is a pretty long story, but I was at this clinic getting treatment for, among other things, my heart. I’d had three quite serious angina attacks in the previous year and in addition to this I was a stroke waiting to happen. My legs were aching to the point where I could hardly walk, so I admitted myself to this place. A couple of days before I’d had a run-in with someone you would be better off staying on the good side of. We got in a fist fight and I knocked him over so that he tripped and fell down a flight of stairs. He threatened to “call on me for a favour” and I said I’d rather be dead than owe him anything. The next night I woke up from a man standing by my bed at the clinic, wearing a doctor’s uniform, but recognised him as one of Salvatore’s men. He’d accidentally knocked something over and looked terribly guilty when I sat up and looked at him. I immediately knew what he was there for so I asked him, relatively calmly, how he had been instructed to take care of me. He showed me an empty needle and said he would have made it look like a final heart attack by a administering a direct injection of 60 ml of air into a vein. This would cause the chambers of the heart to fill with air, which in turn would cause a heart attack.’
‘You have got to be kidding me?’
‘I wish,’ he chuckled. ‘I had met this man on various occasions before, and knew he liked me. This wasn’t the first time I’d pissed off his employer, so I’d negotiated with him once before when he’d been instructed to roughen me up a bit to give me a scare. I said I would be willing to disappear for good, never to appear again in Salvatore’s lifetime. He was sixty at the time, so worst case scenario I was looking at twenty plus years of hiding. He left my room but said he’d be back, which he was the following night.’
‘And you just stuck around to find out what the outcome would be?’
‘He would have found me eventually, these people always do. So what I did was that I called my wife and said she should expect me home. I knew I couldn’t tell her the truth, not then, but that I’d be in touch as soon as it had all blown over.’
‘So what happened then?’
‘He came back and said Salvatore had agreed, but that I was to disappear from the public eye. That if he ever saw me again, he’d kill me himself – and I quote – “with my own bare hands”. I don’t know all the details of this whole operation, I was just told to go with the flow and “play dead”. The doctor on call was made an offer he couldn’t refuse and later taken care of, even though he had sworn secrecy. He insisted there was no reason to perform an autopsy, as it was a clear-cut case of a heart attack. Then shoved me in a box and immediately removed me from the premises. I was taken to one of Salvatore’s secret houses outside of Torino before the news broke, and stayed there.’
‘So it was news.’
‘Most definitely. I wrote my wife a letter that I asked one of Salvatore’s minions to give to her, which explained everything, but when I was told five months later that she had died “of a broken heart” I knew it had never got to her. You want to know the biggest irony? Salvatore himself died of a heart attack, four years later.’
‘Jesus. What about your health?’
‘I’d already been under treatment for a while, so I was slowly getting better. I grew my beard and my hair, and eventually I could move around the small village unnoticed if I wore a hat and glasses. I moved out of the house as soon as soon as I heard that Salvatore had died. That’s when I came to London.’
‘So w… who were… are you?’
He waved his hand like he was trying to get rid of a bug. ‘It’s not important. I’m a different person now and that’s what matters. Who I was then… I’d been pulled, unwillingly, in the wrong direction for years, opposite to where I actually wanted to go. There were some benefits, sure, but when you don’t do what you feel you’re meant to do… well, then you won’t be fully happy. Not really. Believe it or not, in some ways I was happy to disappear off the face of the earth. The only thing I’m sad about is that my family suffered.’
‘How do you feel seeing this place again?’
‘It’s interesting how I expected to have all these feelings rushing back, but I stand here looking at it and it’s simply a building. I remember everything in detail and I can recall how it made me feel at the time, but now…’
‘…it’s just a piece of history.’
He turned and looked at me with a vague smile. ‘Exactly.’
‘Had you known then what you know now, would you have done the same again?’
‘Good question. As I say, I regret the pain it brought upon others, but for purely selfish reasons I probably would have. When other people run your life, you end up being a spectator where you should be a decision maker. I was drinking, I was… sleeping around, I got into fights, I fell out with people and it was all a result of feeling trapped with only one way to go. When that one way street isn’t the one you want to go down, then you’re willing to do things that make you unpopular in the hopes that it’ll change the things that you’ve been told is set in stone.’
I didn’t know what to say. Even though he was being incredibly cryptic, I understood where he was coming from. I wanted to ask further, but I sensed that he really just wanted to say some things out loud and keep a lid on the details. It had been nearly three decades, after all, but how had someone like him managed to piss off members of La Cosa Nostra?
The next morning we were on a plane back to London – my mind absolutely blown.