Tag Archives: Death

A last farewell…

Your time on earth is over and what’s left is the rest of us – and a void the size of the Grand Canyon. Those who got to know you, who now miss you, have to find a way to cope without you. You touched so many people and changed so many lives, including mine.

We talked a lot through the years, about everything. Your youthful, honest, kind, loving spirit was in every exchange. You gladly shared your sprightly personality, your hilarious jokes, the amazing stories from your eventful life. You enriched my days. Every time my phone beeped, I hoped it was a message from you. I grew fonder and fonder of you by the day.

When we finally met, you gave me six wonderful days with you. On the first day you took my hand, looked into my eyes and said, “I’ve been looking forward to this moment for so long, I can hardly believe you’re actually here. You’re even more beautiful than I had imagined.”

Over the next few days we laughed and cried, we talked and embraced – and exchanged the words we’d both wanted to say to each other for a long time. Then you sang to me, three times. Your voice was rugged, the words were sincere and your heart and love was in every phrase. I tried not to cry, as I sat on my knees in front of you while you held your hands on my cheeks and crooned softly as you looked into my eyes.

Thanks to you, I had six perfect days that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

Then I had to leave and you slowly got worse – but we managed to stay in touch and exchange sweet messages of love every now and then. We talked a little on the phone on a few occasions, reminded each other of the words we’d exchanged in person and talked about what we’d do when we next met – although we both knew that’d never happen.

When you took your final breath, we had nothing left unsaid. It was still a shock, although it was expected. I’m hurting now for purely selfish reasons – because I’ll never get to spend another day with you, I’ll never get to hear you say “I love you, sweetheart” again and I’ll never get to hold you in my arms again…

But you were ready.

You were fine about leaving your earthly existence, because you’d lived “the perfect life” and because you knew you’d end up in a good place, based on the life you’d been living and the way you’d treated people. I know you wouldn’t have wanted any of us to be sad, you would have wanted us all to follow our dreams, to never settle for less and to celebrate a life well lived.

I’ll love you and keep you in my heart forever, for all that you were to me. Knowing you made me a better person. You reminded me that not realising my full potential is not an option. That it’s up to me to do what it takes to live the life that I want and deserve – just like you did. I’ll never meet anyone else like you, but at least I got to meet you.

I’ll treasure that for the rest of my life. Thank you. For everything.

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An Opeatic Finale

It’s the day of my dad’s performance at the Royal Opera House. The laryngitis that kept the original Wotan from performing tonight is still preventing him, which means my dad is going to get his dream fulfilled. As he’s nearly 72 now, it really is his last chance.

He had given up years ago, but mother and I never did.

I’m meeting Annie in twenty minutes, and we’ve decided to bring Sue to the performance. I’ve already taken her out of the closet and put her on the kitchen worktop. I’ve found a presentable bag that has room for the box, that at the same time won’t look weird on row five in an international opera house.

I’m wearing my tuxedo, which doesn’t happen all that often, but this is a special occasion – for several reasons.

I’ve called for a cab and make my way downstairs to greet it. We’ll pick Annie up on the way, despite that being a little bit of a detour. The woman is 30 weeks pregnant, whatever that actually means in real terms. Eight months? I’ve only spoken to her on the phone since she met my parents three weeks ago, so I don’t know how much she’s grown, but from what she’s said it’s substantial.

I wonder if Sue is going to show up and join in tonight – in spirit, so to speak. I find it a mix between alarming and amusing that I think this is normal now, to have the spirits of dead friends hanging around. What’s actually more alarming than funny is that I have her ashes in a bag on my lap at the moment, intend on taking her to the opera and call that normal behaviour.

Don’t worry, there’s a reason for it.

We stop outside the Old Vic theatre where Annie is waiting. She’s dressed in a bright red, flowing dress that comes in under her breasts and lightly hugs her growing belly. She has a black shawl around her shoulders to – I presume – keep her arms covered in the wind. This will, in fact, be rather important later.

‘Thanks for picking me up,’ she smiles and gives me a brief kiss as she sits in. I’m not sure if it was meant to land on my mouth or if she was aiming for my cheek, or if I provoked the outcome by turning my head towards where I presumed she was aiming for. One more analytical thought like that, and I need to check if I still have my cock intact.

Christ.

‘Are you ready? For everything?’

‘Absolutely. Is she in there?’

I nod and briefly show her the box. It’s snowing again, more than it has for decades, and the weather has disrupted just about every road and every airport in the country. So the chances are that the bass-baritone set out to do Wotan wouldn’t have been able to get here from Germany anyway, even without laryngitis.

The wind hits us hard as we drive across Westminster Bridge, and for once I don’t mind that. I have a knot in my stomach about tonight. I know dad will do well, I’ve heard him sing a million times before, but I know how important this is to him. This has been his dream since I was a child. He’s always wanted to be on that stage.

‘Are you nervous?’ Annie asks and puts her hand on mine.

‘A little,’ I admit. ‘But I’m pretty sure everything will work out tonight.’

‘I’m sure it’ll all be perfect.’

We pull up on Bow Street and get out. I notice that she’s been sensible in her choice of footwear, and has left her heels at home. Being in heels tonight would be hard for several reasons. I offer her my elbow and we stagger across the sidewalk and in through the main entrance.

I wonder who mother is bringing to be her “date” for the night, but I’ll soon find out. She’s always early and we usually arrive separately. I’m also pretty sure she’ll be backstage with dad for as long as he’ll let her, to help calm his nerves.

‘What a lovely place,’ Annie enthuses and looks around. What a wonderful first time experience for her. The first time I was in here I was seven. Dad and I went to see “Fanciulla del West” in January of 1978, starring Plácido Domingo as Ramerrez.

It wasn’t a bad first time, I must say.

We find our seats in the middle of row five, and as we’re about to sit down mother arrives with dad’s friend Mr. Wilkinson. I’ve never known his first name, come to think of it. He’s an old man now, bless him. He must be more than fifteen years older than dad – which makes him almost ninety. Yet, he still walks without a stick, and only uses glasses for when he reads the newspaper.

‘Elton, my boy, this is a great day for us all,’ he greets me. ‘And who might you be, my dear?’

‘I’m Annie… Sir,’ she says and smiles.

As we sit down, I smile to myself.

I don’t know exactly why people immediately treat Mr Wilkinson with such respect. I’ve always felt him very authoritarial although he’s never told me how to speak to him. It’s funny that Annie’s reaction was to call him “Sir” as well. It could be because he’s always spoken with a terribly posh accent, a bit like John Gielgud.

We hear the final announcements, which basically means we’ve only got a couple of minutes to go. Even before the curtain is up, we hear the well-known intro; “Ride of the Valkyries”. I notice Annie’s grinning as she recognises the music. She leans across to whisper something in my ear.

‘Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit, kill the waaabbit!’ she sings, aping Elmer Fudd, which basically makes me fight the urge to laugh out loud. Mother gives me a stern look as she realises that I’m snorting and shaking, as I’m trying not to burst. I try pulling myself together, but every time I succeed I think of Bugs Bunny as Brünnhilde in that opera-piss-take cartoon.

In front of us, the Valkyries (read: sopranos) are doing various high notes, still with the same music in the background. I’m sure I’ll be fine as soon as this particular tune fades out.

Ten minutes into the performance dad walks in, clutching his score. The anticipation is just about killing me. Annie grabs hold of my hand and squeezes it. I hold onto mother’s on the other side. The audience have no idea who the new Wotan is, and will be suspicious until he opens his mouth.

‘Hörst du’s, Brünnhilde,’ he growls, as he’s supposed to be angry with her for disobeying him. Her punishment is basically to be transformed into a mortal and be held in a magic sleep on the mountain, a prey to any man who comes by. The other Valkyries look on in dismay before disappearing, leaving Brünnhilde to plead with Wotan alone. Finally he consents to her last request: encircle the mountaintop with a magic flame, which will deter all but the bravest of heroes.

The soprano who sings Brünnhilde has a massive voice but the most satisfying thing about it is that dad actually manages to produce an equally big sound. Although he’s, let’s face it, a short-arse, he actually sound like the dangerous, Norse God he’s meant to portray.

That’s Odin, by the way, if you hadn’t figured it out yet.

When he does the soft, moving “Wotan’s Farewell”, none of us can help ourselves and quietly dry our faces. If this had been a proper opera, this is when he would have laid her down on a rock, embraced her and  kissed her eyes closed, sending her into an enchanted sleep. Instead, she exits the stage, leaving him on his own to summon Loge, the Norse demigod of fire, to ignite the circle of flame that will protect her. He then slowly departs in sorrow, after declaring (in German), “Whosoever fears the point of my spear shall not pass through the fire.”

The curtain falls.

There is a stunned silence.

Then there’s roaring applause.

We all stand up, as the singers make their way through the curtain and take a bow. Dad is grinning like a Cheshire Cat, bowing and blowing kisses like a true star. Annie’s holding onto my arm, quietly drying away tears as they keep running down her face.

I can’t think of anyone that I’d rather be here with me this evening than her.

The lights come on and we’re being informed of a break. Yes, this isn’t just one forty-minute concert, you see. As a part of the Wagner evening, they’ll do selected acts from four of his works: “Die Walküre”, “Lohengrin”, “Tannhäuser” and “Der fliegende Holländer”.

Annie and I will miss at least parts of the remaining three, hopefully just one.

We make our way out of the auditorium, and I bring out a little map that I’ve drawn. I’ve spoken to one of the chorus tenors and asked him to find out how to get to the emergency exit to the roof. This is why it was important for Annie to have sensible shoes and something to cover up her naked skin. We won’t have a whole ceremony, but we’re planning to release Sue up there.

It’s the closest thing to a perfect send-off we could think of.

‘This way,’ I whisper and push my way through another door. The idea is to not be seen, and to follow the right signs towards the right emergency exit. Finally we end up by a stairway that goes upwards. I’m surprised none of the doors are locked, but I guess in case of an actual emergency, they can’t be. The last bit we have to climb up an iron ladder, and finally we’re on the roof.

The wind blows straight through our clothes and as I help Annie onto the flat roof, I take off my jacket and put it around her.

‘No objections,’ I say before she has the time to protest. I take the box out of the bag and hand it to her. ‘Is there anything you’d like to say before we send her off?’

‘I miss you, Sue. Life isn’t quite the same without you… Most of all, right now I wish you could have been here to see my baby grow up. I know you’d have loved to be an auntie to her. I hope you’re happy where you are now,’ she sobs, clutching the box containing her friend’s remains.

She takes a moment before handing it back to me.

‘I hope you felt loved when you were here with us, because you were…’ I start and then my mind goes blank. Everything else I’ve had rehearsed in my head is gone. My head feels light and I suddenly feel warmth, like I’m not standing on an opera house roof in the middle of a snow storm.

‘Do you feel that?’ Annie asks. ‘I feel warm!’

‘Let’s release her,’ I smile and hold the box out in between us. Annie opens the lid, and we stand there for a moment, watching its contents, until a gust of wind grabs hold of it and takes it away.

I swear I can hear Sue’s laughter as the ashes mixes with the snow and wind and disappears.

Then suddenly, it’s freezing cold again.

Excerpt from my novel, “The Basic Model” (2010)

A Serenade – Part VI of VI

He asked me how I wanted to do it. Small? Big? Church? Register office? I had never been terribly romantically inclined and wasn’t one of those girls who’d planned her wedding since she was four. I didn’t have hundreds of friends, family and acquaintances that I needed present, so I went for the least complicated option: register office with two witnesses, namely Mrs Connelly and her son Marcus. I got a simple, white dress and he wore a flawless black suit. We took a taxi together to Westminster City Hall, holding hands. Laura and Marcus were already there when we arrived and took us to the waiting room with other couples.

As it was our turn to stand before the clerk, he looked at Alfredo and nodded. A melody came on and then he started singing. The serenade that he had first performed when he thought I wasn’t around, then again at my request:

Over us the moon is shining
Bright as flowers in the spring
Silently heard is the sound of a bird
Mixing in the air that’s beaming

Can this song be heard forever
As it calls my heart to you
While we drift along together
Adrift are my thoughts of you

Your voice is the sound of the wind beneath the willows
Your features I see in the strangers that I pass
The wind that’s bending, the strangers passing
The seashore brushing against the tide
Stringing along where my heart has a song
And that song in my core cannot pale
This is a serenade, my yearning serenade

Over us the moon is shining
Bright as flowers in the spring
Silently heard is the sound of a bird
Mixing in the air that’s beaming

Can this feeling last forever
There is nothing more I want, so trust me
Let this feeling live forever
And till the end of time

It was soft, powerful, loving, moving and highly emotional. Normally the cheesiness of the lyrics would have made me gag, but the way he sang every word as though he’d written them himself had me in tears. So much so that I was unsure of whether I had any mascara left on my eyelashes by the time he was done. I fell into his arms as he finished the last word on a soaring high note that sent shivers down my spine.

‘I love you,’ he whispered into my ear and kissed my cheek. I was unable to speak but my reaction to his outpouring was probably enough of an answer for him ‘Let’s get married, shall we?’

I turned to the clerk and noticed that he had “something in his eye” and had to clear his throat.

‘Right… we are gathered here today to join this man and this woman in marriage… You fell in love by chance, but you’re here today because you’re making a choice. You both are choosing each other. You’ve chosen to be with someone who enhances you, who makes you think, makes you smile, and makes every day brighter. You’re about to make promises to each other that you intend to keep. You’re going to vow to take care of each other, to stand up for one another, and find happiness in the other. There’s a simple premise to each of these promises: you’re vowing to be there. You’re teaming up and saying to the other, “Every experience I am going to have, I want you to be a part of.” Will you, Maria, keep Alfredo as your favorite person – to laugh with him, go on adventures with him, support him through life’s tough moments, be proud of him, grow old with him, and find new reasons to love him every day?’

‘I will.’

‘Will you, Alfredo, keep Maria as your favorite person – to laugh with her, go on adventures with her, support her through life’s tough moments, be proud of her, grow old with her, and find new reasons to love her every day?’

‘Definitely.’

‘I would now like to read “Blessings for a marriage” by James Dillet Freeman.’

While the clerk was reading the Freeman text, Alfredo and I stood holding hands and looking at each other. He finally said we were man and wife, and “you may kiss the bride”. We met in a decent, understated, subdued kiss that would look romantic in a picture, at first. Then we pulled away for a moment, looked at each other again and a devilish look swept across his face. He turned to the clerk, then to our witnesses, said “excuse me”, bent me backwards and kissed me again – Hollywood style. We chuckled all the way out of the room, where the next couple was standing outside. The bride, in her 60s, was looking adoringly at Alfredo as he walked past.

‘Excuse me, Sir, was that you singing in there?’

‘Yes, it was.’

‘You really, really sound like…’

‘I hope you’ll have a wonderful wedding day,’ he smiled and touched her shoulder as we continued walking past them. It wasn’t like him to interrupt someone talking to him. As I was about to ask him, he turned to look at me. Something in his eyes seemed unfocused. Then, I watched it happen as though in slow motion: his hand went up to his chest, his eyes rolled back in his head and his knees gave way. I dropped to the floor and turned him over on his back as Marcus ran to the reception and shouted for them to call 999. I ripped open his jacket and was about to start CPR, once again, when he suddenly gasped for air and his hand took hold of my wrist.

‘I’m so sorry,’ he whispered as a tear ran down his temple. ‘Stay with me… please.’

Blankets appeared out of nowhere, one under his head and one covering him. I lay down on my side and put my head on his shoulder, where I could both be close to him and pay attention to his breathing. I slipped my hand under the blanket and put it on his chest, as his arm went around my back. His heart beat was weak but still somewhat erratic. His complexion was a pale grey and his skin was clammy. I blocked out the noise going on around us and didn’t even notice when the medics arrived, only when they lifted me off him and got him onto a stretcher. I fought off Marcus who wanted to comfort me and ran in the direction of the ambulance. He’d been given an oxygen mask and drifted in and out of consciousness as we rushed to the hospital.

Once we arrived I refused to leave his side, even when he was being examined, and nobody objected. It may have had something to do with me being in a wedding dress, of course. As feared, the news wasn’t good: he once again had blood poisoning, this time more serious than the last time, due to a kidney infection – but his liver was failing, his right kidney had shut down, his left was severely infected and his heart was weaker than ever before.

‘I’m sorry,’ said the doctor. ‘We can make you comfortable, but…’

‘Will you please give me a moment alone with my wife?’

‘Certainly.’

I felt numb. The silence in the room was deafening.

‘I love you, sweetheart. I’m so sorry.’

‘I love you, too,’ I sobbed. ‘Don’t worry, I won’t let you die in this place.’ I hadn’t said the D-word out loud until this point. ‘I’m going to take care of you.’

He nodded with a smile, just as the doctor returned.

‘Knowing you, Alfredo, you want to go home. What are your thoughts?’ he asked me.

‘Just tell me what I need to do.’

‘We’ll administer the first dosage of antibiotics and morphine intravenously and then I’ll give you a written schedule with when you need to administer the antibiotics. I’ll arrange for a nurse to come in three times a day to administer the rest.’

Within two hours we were in a taxi on route to Lennox Gardens. We’d been offered an ambulance, but Alfredo refused. He didn’t like them and wanted to sit next to me instead. He held my hand and rested his head on my shoulder, his breath caressing my naked skin as he was quietly singing the finale of the serenade he’d sung to me at our wedding ceremony a few hours earlier:

‘…can this feeling last forever? There is nothing more I want, so trust me. Let this feeling live forever and till the end of… time…’

Minutes later there was a change in his entire body, that was almost unnoticeable, like every muscle relaxed simultaneously, combined with the steady flow of air against my arm ceasing. I wrapped both my hands tightly around his and let streams of warm tears run down my cheeks, knowing that this was it: his heart had finally given up.

In a bid to keep him with me for as long as possible, I asked the driver to drive around Hyde Park, where he and I had walked every day for the past few months, and then to return to the hospital. I don’t know when the driver realised what was going on, but as soon as we pulled up he left the car and came back with two men in white and a stretcher. A nurse came out to look after me as they took him away. It wasn’t until the double doors closed behind him that it felt like my heart ruptured. The nurse took me to the doctor who had tended to him a short time before. When I stepped into his office he had a package in his hands.

‘He asked me to give you this in the event of his death,’ he said and handed me the brown envelope. ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’

He touched my shoulder as he walked past me. I slowly opened it and took out a vinyl single and a handwritten note. Underneath a picture of him as a young man was the title “A Serenade”, released in 1954. The note said:

“My darling –

Hopefully this will prevent the song in your heart from fading.

I’ll be with you, always.

Alfredo x”

A Serenade – Part V of VI

Four days later he was back in his own bed. I hadn’t left the hospital at all since he was admitted, mainly because I wanted to be around him “in case” but also because I wasn’t ready to go back to the house by myself. When he’d got the all clear, I helped him up the stairs and into bed.

‘Don’t you think I’ve spent enough time in bed this week?’

‘You need to rest. What would you like for dinner?’

‘Please, let me at least help,’ he pleaded. ‘Bed is boring unless you’re in it,’ he added, grabbed hold of me and pulled me down to him. I knelt down on either side of his hip and leaned down to kiss him, without putting pressure on his chest. He cupped my arse with his hands before letting his hands run down my back.

‘You literally died this week, don’t you think you should allow yourself some time to recover?’ He unbuttoned my jeans and forced them over my hips. ‘No?’

‘No.’

I sat up and unbuttoned my shirt. I knew that I probably shouldn’t give in – but considering he’d last stopped breathing when he was sleeping, I figured it wasn’t possible to calculate when it would happen next. Besides, he had been cleared for physical activity and even been recommended a certain amount of it. “Less than 1% of heart attacks happen during sex”, his doctor had said while looking at me.

The look on Alfredo’s face had been priceless as he just smiled heartily.

He flipped me onto my back and put his mouth on my naked skin. I pulled his t-shirt over his head and observed his physique; his tanned skin, his broad shoulders, his barrel chest, his curls… We took a moment to get rid of the rest of our clothes and I shifted him onto his back.

‘You don’t want to overdo it,’ I explained. ‘So just lie back, relax and let me do all the work.’

An hour later I was preparing fish and rice while Alfredo sat in a chair and kept me company. It was a compromise. He wanted to do all the cooking, I said he should learn to accept my help, he agreed as long as he could cut onions and herbs – I said “OK” as long as he sat down while doing it. I was about to finish up the sauce when the phone rang. Alfredo reached behind him and picked it up off the wall.

‘Cocozza residence, to whom am I speaking? Hold on a moment.’ He put the receiver against his chest and waved me over. ‘It’s Michael asking if this is where Maria Johnson lives. Is it?’

I was expecting to feel anxious or nervous, but instead I just nodded, pressed the loud speaker button on the base of the phone and rolled my eyes. ‘Hello?’

‘Was that him? Was that the senior citizen you’re shacking up with?’ His voice was high-pitched, confronting and slurring. ‘Yes, that’s right, Nadine told me she’d met this charmer  in Hyde Park. I can’t believe you’ve moved on so fucking quickly!’

‘How is any of this your concern?’

‘You were my girlfriend for six years! That’s why it’s my concern!’

Were being the operative word. You engaged in a game of horizontal tandem yoga with my best friend and I moved on. I think we’re even. How did you find me?’

‘Nadine said you lived in Lennox Gardens so I’ve called around. I didn’t know you had daddy issues! How does it feel to fuck a geriatric?’

Alfredo snorted his water through his nose in amusement at the question.

‘I don’t and it feels outstanding. Was there anything else you wanted?’ Michael had nothing to add, just grunted, huffed and puffed. He had never been good with confrontations unless it contained screaming, shouting and swearing. ‘Goodbye, Mike.’

I hung up and went back to stirring the sauce. ‘What a prat.’

‘I’d say you handled that with dignity, but he does sound like a bit of a…’

‘Dickhead?’ I helped.

‘I was going to say “immature child” but I like yours better.’

‘Can you believe he’s called all of Lennox Gardens to find me? How sad is that?’

‘I can’t believe he asked what it’s like to, and I quote, “fuck a geriatric”,’ Alfredo chuckled. ‘Besides, I’m not officially geriatric until I’m 65. In another year.’

I laughed out loud at the bizarreness of it. ‘I love you. Geriatric or not.’

‘I love you, too. Even though you’re young,’ he winked.

I served up the food and moved us into the dining room. He looked like he wanted to say something, but that he changed his mind every time he was about to confess.

‘By the way, I’ve got an appointment in the morning that you don’t have to come to. It’s just ten minutes away so I’ll be fine.’

By “don’t have to” he meant “I don’t want you to come to” so I just confirmed – but that I expected him to have someone call me if something did happen. This was long before everyone had mobile phones in their pockets so it wasn’t a case of sending a message if something went wrong. He looked mildly excited, so I just figured I’d leave him to it and hope for the best.

The morning after he’d somehow managed to get out of bed and out of the house before I’d even woken up. He left a note on the mirror saying: “Don’t worry, I’ll be back by 11.” I looked at my watch and was even more surprised that it was 10:15. Then again, I hadn’t slept much in the past few days, so I probably needed to catch up. I got ready and found another note in the kitchen: “Open the oven.” Inside the oven was a frying pan with scrambled eggs and bacon that I could just put on the stove and reheat. It was still lukewarm, as was the water in the kettle, so he couldn’t have been gone too long. I was beginning to get curious about what he was doing out by himself that I couldn’t possibly go along to.

Five past eleven I heard him coming through the front door. I came to greet him and he had his winter coat and trilby hat on, looking handsome as usual.

‘Would you mind going into the drawing room and I’ll join you in a mere moment?’

I went in and stood by the window, where we’d finally given in to our desires for the first time, and just waited. It took him a few minutes, but when he came through the door I turned around and found him holding a red rose in his hand. He was dressed in a pinstriped suit and had dyed his hair back to its original black, his face was clean shaven, a combination that made him look like he was in his 40s. He came over and handed me the rose, and I could feel myself tearing up, even before he spoke. He planted a soft kiss on my mouth before taking both my hands in his.

‘I can’t imagine spending the rest of my life without you. I’m so grateful that we met, even under these circumstances. You’ve changed my whole existence and I wish I could give you the world, but I this ring was all I could afford,’ he said with a smile before kneeling down before me. ‘Maria Johnson… will you do me the honour of becoming my wife?’

I sobbed a reply that sounded something like “yes” and he put a beautiful ring on my finger. It was in white gold with half a dozen small diamonds in it. Tasteful and classic. It was perfect.

A Serenade – Part IV of VI

After the first night we gave in to our desires, I had pretty much moved into his bedroom. As we got more and more comfortable with one another, the more it intensified and the more I worried about accidentally killing him. I started seeing headlines like, “Older gentleman shagged to death by woman half his age” and when I shared my concerns with him he laughed and said, “There are worse ways to die.” He seemed to do well, better even, suffering fewer blackouts – and couldn’t get enough of me. I, too, found myself in a state of constantly being turned on for as long as he was near me.

‘Don’t you think we act a bit like teenagers?’ I asked as I slid off the dining room table.

‘Completely. Isn’t it great? I haven’t had this much fun since…’ he paused. ‘I don’t even know. I feel like I’ve been in a coma for twenty years.’

“Older gentleman shagged back to life” did sound a lot less depressing than my initial headline.

I had been living under his roof for about three months when the inevitable happened: We ran into someone I knew. We had just exited Hyde Park when Nadine, one of my childhood friends, suddenly stood in front of us – literally gawking as she was clearly trying to recover from the view of me kissing him.

‘Maria?’ she squeaked and hugged me. ‘Who’s your… friend?’

‘This is Alfredo. Alfredo, this is Nadine.’

‘Pleasure,’ he smiled and met her hand with his. She looked at him in disbelief at first, then I could literally see the change in her face as soon as he made eye-contact with her and held her gaze as he briefly planted a kiss on her hand.

‘No, really, it’s all mine,’ she giggled. Her giggling was as surprising as John Wayne dancing. She was one of the most cerebral people I knew, and handled every situation with absolute control. Was she actually blushing?

‘It’s about time we met,’ he added, even though I’d never mentioned her to him.

‘It is,’ she beamed. ‘Where are you heading?’

‘Home,’ I said, even though she didn’t take her eyes off him.

‘Where is home?’

‘Over in Lennox Gardens.’

‘We should meet, soon, for coffee. We need to… catch up. Clearly.’

‘Clearly… I’ll call you.’

She continued into the park and we made our way across the road and towards Knightsbridge high street. I was still amused at her reaction and pleasantly surprised at his ability to take charge of the situation.

‘Are you close?’ he eventually asked.

‘She’s my childhood friend and close with my ex boyfriend’s sister. And my ex… kind of.’

‘Ooooh, I see. So this is obviously going to get back to him. Does that bother you?’

‘She’s the reason why we broke up, given that she had been sleeping with him for four months by the time I caught them in my bed. Such a boring, classic tale.’

‘You never told me this. What a douche.’

‘Have you ever cheated?’

‘I have. When I was married, thirty years ago.’

‘When did you get married?’

‘In 1945, when I was 24,’ he said and immediately chuckled. ‘My God, that makes me sound ancient. So… how do you really feel about your ex finding out you’re shacking up with a dinosaur?’

‘I really don’t care,’ I laughed. ‘Seriously. He was an immature child and couldn’t fuck worth of damn. If you’ll excuse my French.’

‘No problem,’ he chuckled. ‘It sounds like she did you a favour.’

‘True. If she hadn’t betrayed me, then I would never have been homeless and desperate and probably wouldn’t have applied to be a live-in PA.’

‘We should send her a bottle of wine, really.’

We looked at each other in amusement as we walked along in silence. How did I feel about Nadine telling Michael? Considering how she had reacted to him, I guessed that he would be getting good reviews – in addition to “oh, and he’s kind of old”. I also knew that Nadine’s mother spoke to my mother on a regular basis, so how fast the news travelled would become apparent as soon as I heard from her. She and I weren’t close, so she didn’t really know what I was up to, but I was almost certain she’d heard that Michael and I had broken up. We just had the kind of relationship where we didn’t speak more than we had to. Weddings, funerals, baptisms, birthdays and Christmas seemed to cover both our needs sufficiently.

Outside the brownstone he suddenly bent over, clutched his chest and grunted.

‘What’s happening?’ I asked as calmly as I could bring myself to be, as I touched his back and managed to sit him down.

‘Angina,’ he wheezed. ‘It’s going to be OK, I just need my…’ He pointed to his pocket and I fished out his beta blockers. He took two and tried to catch his breath.

‘Are you sure this will be OK? Should I call an ambulance?’

‘Don’t worry, just give me five minutes.’

Fifteen minutes later we were still sitting there, but he had stopped sweating and was finally breathing normally. I was trying hard not to show that I was scared out of my mind every time he had an episode, but I realised that I’d failed when he looked at me and said “sorry”.

‘What for?’

‘For putting you through this. It’s not fair on you that I’m being selfish.’

‘How are you being selfish, exactly?’

‘I’m indulging in feelings of love, passion and lust, when I should be telling you to find a healthy man your own age.’

‘But you’re not really that patronising… are you?’ I snapped.

He touched my cheek and took a deep breath. ‘No, I’m not. But I love you. For what it’s worth.’

‘I love you, too. For what that’s worth.’

I wrapped both my arms around him and rested my chin on his shoulder. He leaned in and planted a kiss on my mouth before embracing me fully and letting the aforementioned passion take over. We didn’t stop until we heard someone demonstrably clearing their throat. We must have looked guilty as charged when we looked up, because Mrs Connelly – his housekeeper – went from looking stern to offering a beaming smile.

‘Well, well,’ she said. ‘I did suspect.’

We sheepishly followed her up the stairs to the 4th floor and went through to his bedroom, where she usually cleaned last. Both to not be in her way and to give him a chance to rest. We left the door wide open so that she wouldn’t think we were up to anything, and lay down on top of the covers – him on his back and me on my side, resting my head on his shoulder.

‘What do you think your parents would say to this?’

‘Oh, I’m not sure they’d care a whole lot, to be honest. They never got involved in any of my other relationships, so why should they get involved in this one?’

‘What would you like them to think?’

‘I’d like them to acknowledge my right to choose whomever I want to be happy with.’

‘Good answer. Good answer…’

‘How are you feeling?’

‘Tired. But nothing a little rest won’t take care of.’

I put my hand on his chest and felt his heart. It was beating calmly as he drifted off to sleep. I closed my eyes and listened to his breath as I almost drifted off to the land of dreams. Suddenly I noticed that my hand was no longer moving along with his chest and his breath was silent. I immediately removed the pillow from underneath his head, knelt next to him and started performing CPR as I screamed for Mrs Connolly. She came running and as soon as she saw what I was doing, she dialled 999. I bent his head backwards and gave him mouth to mouth, then started counting out loud.

‘One-two-three-four-five-breathe… one-two-three-four-five-breathe…’

‘They got in touch with an ambulance that’s right around the corner,’ she informed me calmly, even though her voice was shaking. ‘They were in Holland Park when I called.’

‘One-two-three-four-five-breathe… one-two-three-four-five-breathe…’

I knew what to do because I’d had a one-on-one with a doctor in the hall when I was waiting for him to get his lip fixed. “Pump hard down on his chest, two fingers up from his breast bone, five times, then breathe once into his mouth. Make sure his neck is bent backwards so the airways are clear and straight” was the message. I felt surprisingly calm and collected, until the sound of him gasping for air filled the room. As he took the first breath, his torso elevated from the mattress before he collapsed back once he’d been able to take a second breath. This was the point when my eyes filled with tears and I started sobbing audibly. He opened his eyes and looked at me, mouthing a “sorry” as the ambulance crew burst through the door and gently removed me.

‘You did good work here,’ said the most senior of the three as he put an oxygen mask on him and shone a flashlight into his eyes, which was met with some dissatisfied grunting. ‘We need to take him in for further testing, but I don’t think there’s brain damage here. I understand you started CPR straight away?’

‘Yes,’ I said as I was trying to compose myself. ‘I noticed that he stopped breathing.’

‘You should come with us,’ he said as he stepped aside to allow the other two to put Alfredo on a stretcher and take him out of the room. ‘You did well,’ he repeated as he touched my shoulder. ‘You saved his life. OK? You did well.’

I told Mrs Connelly that I’d call her from the hospital as soon as I knew what was going on. She cried controlled and dignified, as a lady her age would. I ran down the stairs and into the back of the ambulance with the same crew member that had attempted to calm me down. Alfredo was awake, but still being given oxygen. He held my hand with a firm grip and didn’t stop looking into my eyes for as long as the car was moving. Once we arrived at the hospital I was told to wait until they came to get me after he’d seen a doctor that was already waiting.

It was a long half an hour where I had a million thoughts going through my head. I found myself by the coffee machine, clearly looking distraught because a man my age came over and put his hand on my shoulder.

‘Are you OK?’

‘No… Yes… I’m OK, but he’s… he… his heart….’ I sobbed and was embraced by the stranger in front of me. He stroked my back and just held me. I let every possible scenario run through my head, every dark thought that I’d kept at bay for months was in free flow and seemed never ending. I played the scene of me pumping away at his chest over and over again. Then I thought of his eyes as he clutched my hand in the ambulance and took a step away. My mascara was running down my face, making my eyes sting. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t worry about it. Here,’ he said and gave me a handkerchief. ‘Take it.’

I dried my face, completely ruining the piece of cloth with make-up. ‘Sorry.’

‘Don’t apologise.’

‘I guess that’ll be the last time you’ll ever ask a woman how she, huh?’

He smiled. ‘Are you Maria?’

‘Yes…?’

‘I’m Marcus, Laura’s son. Laura Connelly. She called me when you went to the hospital and asked me to come over. She was worried about you. Him, too, of course, but at least he’s being looked after.’

‘Mrs Cocozza?’ I heard behind me and turned around to see an elderly doctor smiling at me. ‘Your husband is doing well, under the circumstances. You saved his life.’ Once more I broke down and had to be comforted by Marcus. They both stood patiently while I cried it out once more and just nodded. ‘You can see him now.’

He took me to Alfredo’s room and let me go in by myself. Marcus had clearly decided to stay in the waiting room, giving me a chance to be alone with him. He was hooked up to various machines and a drip. He looked spent but smiled heartily when he saw me.

‘My husband?’ I chuckled as I dried a tear.

‘I’m on morphine, I don’t know what I’m saying,’ he said and winked.

‘I thought you’d been brain damaged there for a minute,’ I joked.

‘I’m laughing on the inside,’ he smiled and reached out his hand. I took it and sat down on the edge of his bed. ‘I love you. You’ve saved my life in more ways than one. Will you marry me?’

‘Of course I will,’ I confirmed and leaned in to kiss him. ‘But make sure you ask me again when you’re off the morphine.’

‘Of course I will. Come lie on my arm.’ He moved over slightly and I climbed onto the bed, resuming the position we’d had before his heart stopped.

‘Do they know what happened?’

‘I have blood poisoning so they’ve put me on antibiotics intravenously, as well as morphine, but I should be home in a few days. You impressed the ambulance crew and the doctor.’

‘I had to try,’ I said as I felt a fresh flood of tears running down my face for the third time in ten minutes. ‘I can’t lose you.’ I heard my voice cracking as I said it.

‘I’m sorry,’ he repeated and he kissed my forehead, tightening the grip around my back and shoulder. ‘I’m so sorry.’

 

A Serenade – Part III of VI

After we got back from Rome, he was lost in thought for quite a while. He retired to his room more, didn’t talk a whole lot during our walks… He was pleasant, as always, just distant. He didn’t seem down or depressed, just that going to Rome had clearly made him think. It was about three weeks later, as we were walking along in Hyde Park, when he had a sudden loss of consciousness and fell flat on his face. He came to again within a few moments, bleeding rather excessively from his face. At first I thought he’d broken his nose but when I’d taken my shirt off to prevent his suit from getting stained, it turned out to be his lip. It had split about an inch up towards his nose on the left side of his face.

One taxi ride later, I stood in the hospital’s waiting room, gnawing at what was left of my thumb nail. Needless to say, I felt incredibly guilty. Had I paid better attention, then I would have noticed him tripping and falling, possibly being able to prevent him having to go through surgery that had absolutely nothing to do with his heart condition. Finally, a doctor came out to see me.

‘He says you don’t have to wait around, that he’ll take a taxi home when he’s done.’

‘So he’s OK?’

‘He’s perfectly fine, we’re just waiting for our plastic surgeon to come in. His shift starts in an  hour.’

‘Plastic surgeon? Is it really that bad?’

‘We just want to make sure it heals as nicely as possible, considering it’s his face. It won’t be more than five stitches or so. He should be good as new by this evening. Don’t worry,’ he added as he touched my shoulder. ‘He insists that you go home and change your clothes so the blood doesn’t stain them permanently. No buts. Those were his words.’

I chuckled. ‘Tell him that I’m touched by his concern for my clothes, but that I’m not going anywhere.’

The doctor just nodded and walked back to where he came from. I got myself a magazine and a cup of coffee and made myself comfortable. I had to occupy myself with something, otherwise I would keep having images in my head about blood gushing from his upper lip and hideous scarring – accompanied by a blinking neon sign saying “MARIA’S FAULT”. I read about Charles and Diana’s trip to the US and their gala dinner hosted by President Reagan that included guests like Clint Eastwood, John Travolta, Tom Selleck and Neil Diamond; about Reagan and Gorbachev holding their first summit meeting and somewhere in the middle of reading about a coach crash on the M6 motorway near Birmingham that killed two people and injured 51, I must have fallen asleep. I only came to when I felt a hand on my shoulder.

When I opened my eyes, Alfredo was standing next to me.

‘Hello there, Sleeping Beauty,’ he said smoothly. I looked up to see what the surgeon had been able to do, but my attention was immediately drawn to the fact that he was completely clean shaven. My jaw must have visibly dropped because he reacted immediately.

‘I know, I was surprised too. I haven’t shaved for nearly thirty years.’

‘You look… you look so…’

‘Old?’

‘So handsome!’ I heard myself blurt out. When he smiled vaguely at my reaction, my statement was even more true. He had a chin cleft, a slightly pointy chin, visible dimples and surprisingly smooth skin. When I finally got to his lip, I stood up and counted seven stitches. ‘The doctor only said you needed five.’

‘The surgeon wanted to do smaller stitches so the scarring will be minimal.’

‘It looks neat. Swollen, but… you look twenty years younger.’

‘Thank you, my dear. You’re being too sweet.’

We made our way out of the hospital and into a waiting taxi. I couldn’t stop looking at him. He had a much stronger jawline than I’d thought and his battle scar made him look rugged. I’d always guessed that he’d been a looker as a young man, but I was still blown away. He looked like he could have been a star in those classic movies from the 40s and 50s.

We arrived back at the house and he vanished into his room to change his blood stained clothes. He handed me his shirt when he came back out and I said I was going out for twenty minutes to drop it all off at the local drycleaner. As soon as I’d reached street level, I realised that I’d forgotten my purse, so I had to go back up to fetch it. I locked myself back in and was about to go to my room when I heard singing coming from the drawing room. At first I thought it was a recording but then I heard Alfredo clear his throat, which paused the singing, only to resume moments later. I put my ear against the door and just listened.

The voice was surprisingly rich, like a merging of chocolate and velvet, as well as full of emotion. He was crooning like Sinatra but with the strength of an opera singer. When the song was over, I heard his footsteps against the hard, wooden surface approaching the door. I was so stunned that I couldn’t seem to move fast enough, but somehow managed to slide across the hall, onto the stairs in an attempt to make it look like I was descending the stairs. Our eyes met as he exited the room and saw me. At first he looked like he’d been caught shoplifting, but then just looked at me – probably wondering if I’d heard what I had, in fact, heard.

‘I…’ I started. ‘I forgot my pur…’ I paused as I realised I was seemingly coming down from fetching the purse I’d forgotten – that was, in fact, still upstairs.

‘OK,’ he said, his eyes smiling with amusement. I wasn’t sure if he’d been trying to hide his obvious talent, considering I’d never even heard hints of it until he thought I was out of the house. I didn’t say anything else, just ran up the stairs and back out with the clothes under my arm.

Upon my return he was nowhere to be seen, so I went into the drawing room. As I was lingering by the window I could still hear his voice in my head, the melody, the emotion…

‘It’s a serenade,’ I heard him say behind me.

‘Sing it again,’ I pleaded, still with my back against him. ‘Please.’

Then I heard his voice again. The song was in English, performed almost like a lullaby. As before there was no accompaniment, just his voice surrounded by the silence of the room. I got chills as I realised he was walking slowly towards me, ending the last note alongside my cheek as he wrapped his arms about my waist, just under my bust line. I was waiting for him to walk away, or to apologise for the intrusion – but this time he didn’t. Instead he brushed his smooth skin up against my neck and slowly turned me around to face him. Before I had a chance to react, he slid both arms tightly around me and brushed his full lips against mine. I put my arms around him and leaned my chest against his as we melted together in a sensuous yet passionate kiss. I was momentarily worried about the stitches in his lip, but let my worries go when the energy between us intensified and he pushed me up against the window sill. My head was spinning and my senses heightened, leaving me with chills going down my spine every time his hands travelled up and down my back. Eventually he moved his mouth to my neck, embraced me tighter and sighed.

‘I’m done apologising,’ he whispered as he leaned back, looking directly at me. ‘I’m not sorry.’

‘Neither am I,’ I sighed as I felt my lips pulsating.

‘I haven’t felt like this in a really long time… I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I worry that it’s too much to ask of you to get involved with someone in my situation.’

‘What situation would that be?’

‘I’m not exactly in the prime of youth and in amazing health. I could…’

‘Don’t…’ I said and put my hand over his mouth. I didn’t want him to say the word we both knew was a possibility. To make sure the conversation didn’t continue down the same path, I once more met his eager mouth. When I took a step back he looked at his watch.

‘I’ll make dinner,’ he said and offered me his elbow.

‘How is your lip?’ I inquired as we made our way through to the kitchen.

‘Hurts like a mother… but it was worth it,’ he smiled. ‘How do you feel about chicken?’

I sat on the kitchen bench and watched him prepare the chicken with herbs. We talked loosely about nothing in particular, like we always had, but the difference was that every few minutes we exchanged flirtatious glances. When the food was ready, we kept exchanging looks and by the time we were done eating you could have cut the tension with a knife. We tidied up in silence and walked out to the hall, where we usually parted and went our separate ways. He held onto my hands and met my eyes.

‘Would you care to come in and sleep next to me?’

‘Just sleep?’

‘At the very least,’ he chuckled and lead me through to his bedroom. It was large, minimalist and tidy – and actually had pictures on the walls. I took a quick glance and was immediately drawn to one that was of him as a young man. He was wearing a short-sleeved polo shirt, leaning on his elbows and resting his chin on his folded hands. He was significantly younger but it was definitely him. I’d been right: he had been a stunningly handsome man in his youth – and still was.

As soon as we’d crawled under the covers, I could hear his erratic breath in the darkened room and was pretty much dying to feel his hands on me. I closed my eyes and let him explore my body in any way he wanted, and immediately came to the conclusion that he knew exactly where to touch to achieve the desired reaction. At first he teased me, circling the areas that I most wanted him to focus on. I pulled him closer, halfway onto me, guiding his mouth onto my neck, down my chest and further down my torso. He seemed only too willing to take my directions and when he put his tongue to work I locked my thighs around his head and sighed audibly as his left arm leaned across my lower abdomen and the other caressed my thigh.

Just as I got to the point where I wasn’t sure if I could handle any more, he made his way up my body again and didn’t stop until his mouth had found mine. Once more I wrapped my legs around him, this time directly above his hip, welcoming him with ease. I clutched onto his broad back and enjoyed the substantial weight of him. His breathing came in raspy tones as his climax began to wind him up. As he increased intensity, every forward thrust finally sent bursts of electricity that surged through me, making me yelp with pleasure as we orchestrated our sexual duet’s final movement.

A Serenade – Part II of VI

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.

Alfredo

 

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.’

‘Excuse me?’

‘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.