The Hiding Place
By Trezza Azzopardi
Grove Atlantic, Inc. Copyright © 2000 Trezza Azzopardi
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-8021-3859-4
Six-to-four the field, six-to-one bar!
Shouting the odds, the TV and my father, low down on the living room floor.
C'mon, baby! he yells, beating his flank with his fist. With the betting slip in his teeth, he gallops down the last furlong of the rug, to the home straight of the lino. Words bolt from the side of his mouth: Yankee Piggott Photo-finish. I don't understand any of it: I think my father's English leaves a lot to be desired.
He curses: Jesus Christ.
At the end of the race, his face is very flushed, an inch from the set. He's watching the lines and dots as if Barney's Boy will suddenly leap through the screen. Ripping pink shreds of paper from his mouth, my father tears up his slip and spits the remains on the rug. Then he starts in on the Sporting Life, holding it out in front of him, rending it between his fists until he's tearing air. I know at these moments that he would tear me too, for the slightest thing, and I crawl ever so slowly behind the couch, until he's put on his donkey jacket and slammed the back door.
He isn't just like this about horses. My father will gamble on anything that moves. He won't do Bingo or fruit machines or snow on Christmas Day, but horses and pontoon and poker and dogs. My father's love isChance. Look at that roulette wheel! Bet red, bet black, bet red, bet black. If he could place his bet Under Starter's Orders he would still change his mind over every fence. The Form makes no difference, the words don't make sense, and the odds at Joe Coral have no bearing on his stake.
He has always been this way, according to my mother. She made her own bet on him, in November 1948, in the church of St Mark's, in a white lace gown.
* * *
This is what happens just before I am born: it's 1960. My parents, Frankie and Mary, have five beautiful daughters, and a half-share in a cafe overlooking Cardiff docks. Salvatore Capanone, my father's oldest friend, owns the other half. The sailors on shore leave pour in through the red door to eat, and find a girl. My family lives above the cafe. They have two rooms; one long one, divided into bedroom and lounge by a thick toile curtain depicting scenes of the French aristocracy, and an airless back room which they call The Pit, because you have to climb down into it. My sisters inhabit The Pit, and my father has put a gate up in the doorway to stop Luca, who's only two years old, from climbing up the steps and falling down again. Luca swings her fat leg over the gate whenever my mother isn't looking, and falls from that instead.
There is a third room, one more flight up. It has a square wooden table covered with worn green felt, and four vinyl-backed chairs stacked one upon the other. In the far corner is a window where a blind conceals the day. My mother never goes into this room; it's not hers to use.
There is no kitchen. Every morning my mother trudges downstairs to the cafe to fetch food for my sisters to eat, which they do, sitting in a long line on the couch and watching the Test Card on the television in the corner, while she moves her washing from surface to surface, doing her impression of someone who is tidy. My father's old sea chest is the only storage space, filled with baby clothes. I'll be wearing them soon. My mother knows this, but she doesn't want to air the clothes because my father doesn't. Also, she's determined that I'm a boy this time, and so a lot of the shawls and bonnets and little woollen coats will be redundant, being mainly pink.
Celesta, who's eleven going on forty, is helping to get Marina and Rose ready for school. They look like two turnips in their cream-coloured balaclava hats, and Celesta doesn't want to be seen with them. She wears a straw boater with a chocolate-brown ribbon, bought for when she goes to Our Lady's Convent School. She won't start there until next term, by which time the boater will have a distinctly weathered look, but at the moment she wears it all the time, even in bed. Fran has just begun at primary school. She draws angry pictures of bonfires using three crayons at a time. My mother pays no attention to this, having to deal with Luca now, and the prospect of me later.
When the other children leave, my mother squashes Luca into her hip and goes downstairs to the cafe. She unbolts the front door, slipping off the heavy chain which swings against the wood, and paces the narrow aisle between the tables. At the furthest end, where the daylight doesn't stretch, are two booths and a long counter. Close to its brass lip sit a single smeared tumbler and a half-empty bottle of Advocaat. The air is sweetish here. A sleeveless Peggy Lee is propped against the gramophone in the corner - Salvatore has had a late night.
My mother eases Luca into her high chair, and as soon as she is down, with the rush of cold around her thigh, she screams. She won't stop until she has something sticky on bread, or until my father comes back from the market and swings her in his arms. Luca can't understand why she isn't allowed to practise running. Salvatore used to let her, when my mother had to go and fetch Fran, or hunt the Bookies for my father.
Frankie and Salvatore are a strange brace. My father is smooth and lean, well cut in his well-cut suit. His partner is softer, larger, with milky hands and brimming eyes. Every morning Salvatore puts a clean white handkerchief in the pocket of his apron to deal with the tears which will flow through the day. He blames the heat of the kitchen, rather than his childless wife or the plaintive tones of Mario Lanza. The air is full of music when Salvatore cooks. He plays Dino and Sammy, endless Sinatra, and his favourite, Louis Prima, who reminds him of somewhere not quite like home. The records are stacked in the plate rack on top of the counter, the plates haphazardly stowed beneath. Salvatore glides through the days and nights, dusting flour into the grooves of Julie London, wiping her clean with his napkin. And then he wipes his eyes.
There is a delicate division of labour in this business. Salvatore is a better cook than Frankie, for whom the flames of the kitchen are too much like his vision of Hell. So while Salvatore cuts his fingers, brands the soft flesh of his forearm on the searing stove, and sings and cries, Frankie wears his suit and does things with money upstairs. But Salvatore likes it this way, he gets to see people.
* * *
At first, convinced that it would tempt the passers-by, Salvatore made stews and bread and almond cakes dusted with sugar. He wedged the red door open with a bar stool, wafting the smell of baking out into the street with his tea-towel. He wrote a sign, DELICIOUS FOOD, in a careful hand, and tied it with parcel string around the rusted frame of the awning outside. But Mack the Knife spilt out on to the pavement, upsetting the barber shop owner next door, the sign ran in the rain, and soon Salvatore brought the stool back to the bar. The pigeons in the yard grew fat on unbought food.
Never mind, said my mother. It takes time.
Now he cooks for the sailors, who want egg and chips or bacon in starchy white rolls, and the cafe is busy. Sailors bring in girls, and girls attract trade. Salvatore fries everything in the flat black pan on the stove, his thinning hair stuck to his head with steam. The combed strands come unglued throughout the day, falling one by one in lank array over his left ear. He pretends to be a widower so that the night girls will pity him. In fact he is married to Carlotta, who is respectable, and will not enter The Port of Call, our cafe. Or as Carlotta calls it in her broken English, That Den-o-Sin.
* * *
Salvatore loves my mother and my father and my sisters. He is part of the family. And he will love me too, when I am born. Until then, he has to make do with Luca, who shrieks from her high chair the moment my mother's back is turned. Salvatore watches from a safe distance as Luca's arms jolt up and down in an urgent plea to be lifted. He would free her, but he daren't. The last time he did, she ran like a river to the end of the cafe and caught her head on the edge of a table. She stared at it, astonished, while her forehead bulged and split. The knock held her silent for two days, so silent, my mother thought she was damaged: it was the only time Luca was quiet.
Now when my mother has to go out, she traps Luca in The Pit with soft toys to keep her happy for the five minutes she thinks she will be away. Luca throws them at the furthest wall, screaming like a bomb.
In search of my father, my mother is blunt and shaming. She no longer has the time to be discreet.
Have you seen Frankie? Len the Bookie? In The Bute, are they? Righto.
She tracks down her husband, to the arcade, the coffee house, the back room of the pub. When she finds him, she is vocal. My father complains.
This is business, Mary. Keep out of it.
The other men look down and grin into their shirts. And when my father does return, my mother points to Luca's head.
That's down to you, that is.
Sufficiently shamed, or just tired of losing. Frankie starts a clean sheet. He stops betting; he has finished with it for good. But when my mother tells him about me (at six months the evidence is mounting), he takes the money he's accumulated through not gambling and opens a card school in the top room of the cafe. He wins, and wins. And suddenly I am luck personified.
We'll call him Fortuno, he says, rubbing my mother's stomach as if she's harbouring the Golden Egg. My mother has other ideas.
* * *
In the top room, all four chairs are occupied. There is a haze of cheroots, a sweat of onions, the stink of eggs in oil. My father has staked everything on the winning of the game. Away in the infirmary, I'm wailing at the midwife as Frankie decides to Twist. My mother is straining with the labour of prayer. Over and over.
Oh God, let it be a boy.
When the midwife pulls me out, she conceals me. I am shunted from scales to blanket to anteroom. She closes the door on my mother.
If you have to tell her anything, tell her it's a boy, says the midwife to the nurse.
Salvatore's wife Carlotta, waiting in the corridor with her big black handbag poised on the bulge of her stomach, catches just this one phrase - tell her it's a boy - and makes a phone-call to the cafe.
Salvatore is watching the card game from the doorway upstairs, peeping through the curtain of beads which hangs from the lintel. They cascade from his shoulders like Madonna tears. He doesn't hear the telephone; his mind is in anguish for the game he's not allowed to play. His eyes are fixed on the Brylcreem glint which crowns my father's head. Salvatore's right hand rests stiff across his heart, his left holds a spatula, which oozes slow drips on to the red linoleum floor. He should be downstairs making greasy meals for the thin night girls, but Salvatore cannot concentrate on bacon and eggs when his business is at stake.
* * *
Salvatore likes his partner Frankie, even though he's lazy and not always dependable, and he adores the night girls downstairs. The young ones perch on the stools, their bouffant heads nodding in time to the music on the gramophone; they are stiff-lacquered, clean-scented. The older ones smile, now and then flinging an arm across the booths to display their latest Solitaires. Or they sit in silence. They draw their wet fingers round the rim of their glasses, in an effort to make the last rum last.
Rita, Sophia, Gina. Salvatore recites the girls' names in his sing-song voice. These women are really Irene and Lizzie and Pat. They close around the green metal ashtrays, depressing the buttons with their jewelled hands, watching the debris swirl into the hidden bowl below. When they do leave, the imprints of their bored thighs remain a while upon the shiny leatherette. They never say thank you and they never look back. Salvatore always forgives them. He wipes his hands down the breast of his apron, and sings through the night, while Frankie gambles in the room above his head.
* * *
Tonight, Salvatore wants to watch. Here we have my father, the giant Martineau, Ilya the Pole, and crooked Joe Medora. This pack of men is busy.
Sal ... telephone, says Joe, not looking up.
Salvatore rolls reluctantly downstairs.
Joe Medora wears a slouch hat, a silk scarf anchored at the neck, a Savile Row suit. He's an archetypal villain who makes sure he looks the part. He angles his cigar into the side of his lipless mouth, staring over his Hand. He's seen all the films; no gesture is wasted. He is patient.
It's my father's move. Jack of Hearts, Five of Clubs, Four - winking - Diamonds.
It's a boy! cries Salvatore, beating back upstairs. Bambino, Frankie!
And my father, who is Frankie Bambina to his friends, poor unlucky Frank to have so many daughters, Twists in reckless joy, and loses the cafe, the shoebox under the floorboards full with big money, his own father's ruby ring, and my mother's white lace gown, to Joe Medora.
At least I have a son, he thinks, as he rolls the ring across the worn green felt.
* * *
My father stands above my cot with a clenched fist and a stiff smile. He rubs his left hand along the lining of his pocket, feeling the absence of his father s ring and the nakedness of losing.
At the end of the ward, Salvatore's face appears in the porthole of the swing door. Carlotta's face fills the other, and for a moment they stare separately at the rows and rows of beds and cots. Carlotta lets out a shout, Mary! Frankie!, and sweeps towards my parents. Salvatore raises his hand in salute, but takes his time, pausing to exchange greetings with the other mothers.
A fine baby, Missus!
What a beauty! Boy or girl?
Twins? How lucky!
There aren't enough babies in the ward for Salvatore, perhaps not in the world. He bends over each one with his big smile and his hands clasped at his back.
Carlotta spreads herself on the chair next to my mother's bed and rummages deep into her bag. She makes small talk, not trusting herself to mention me, or the cafe, or the future. My father stabs his teeth with a broken matchstick he's found in the other pocket of his trousers, and sucks air, and says nothing. No one looks at me. Then Salvatore approaches the foot of my mother's bed and opens his arms wide to embrace my father. Both men lean into each other, quietly choking. Carlotta produces a dented red box from her bag, prises off the lid, and offers my mother a chocolate.
Please have one, Mary.
Excerpted from The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi Copyright © 2000 by Trezza Azzopardi. Excerpted by permission.
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