What do you do when the law fails you? You do what’s necessary to make things right again.
I recently completed a 62,000-word teenage/crossover novel dealing with international child abduction – you know, boy from one country meets girl from another country, boy marries girl, boy and girl have child, boy and girl split up, girl goes back to own country and takes child with her, boy kicks up a stink by claiming the kid’s been “abducted”. Well, meet Elisa. She’s 14 years old, English (as is her mother) while her father is Sicilan. Her parents split up and her mother took her – totally in line with Elisa’s wishes – back to England from Sicily. But of course, daddy wasn’t happy and involved the law to get her back, and in this, he succeeded.
So she’s back in Sicily. Is that the end of it? Not in the least. Elisa is determined to get back to England and her mum. That involves taking apart daddy’s careful plans for playing Happy Families. This is where we meet Anya, who is Russian, somewhat on the large side and Elisa’s governess. She speaks no Italian, just her native Russian and some pretty bad English. She has also expressed an interest in (much to her surprise) Elisa’s father. As a way of getting rid of her, this is almost too good to be true, and Elisa has a plan. It involves a bikini that she and Anya had earlier bought during an illicit shopping trip…
You’re probably wondering if I was walking on air after that call, and you’d be wrong. Nothing so dramatic: life just seemed to heave a little sigh of relief and went on. I went to school and tried to keep up with the work, I went home and tried to keep out of my father’s way. And he, when something nudged him to remember I existed, would force a smile and some vague and disinterested enquiry after how I was. So no, no great change, but I did feel a whole lot better for a while. It was like suddenly discovering I had allies, people on my side, people ready to step in say Hold on a goddam minute, something about this set-up ain’t right. It counted for a lot.
I guess it allowed me to cruise a little for a while, that much I’ll admit. During that time, nothing much happened, no one came to visit us. I remained banned from beloved nonna’s Sunday gatherings, though my father was permitted by royal consent to continue his dutiful son act, but I guessed that was more to allow him to report in my progress on being reprogrammed as a Sicilian teenage female, Version 2.0, than anything else. Yeah, that’s how it was. Apart from that, nothing. It was a lull in the fighting. No one manoeuvring. Everyone taking time out to reposition their forces, consider their next move. What no one knew was that mine was already mapped out.
Like I said a lot earlier in this tale, I had a weapon, a Russian battleship of massive girth and awesome firepower. And in this break in hostilities, with everyone off their guard, even beginning to relax, I kind of figured the time was maybe ripe to roll it out.
It was a warm and lazy Saturday afternoon, then, that found me creeping along the landing and knocking gently on her door.
Nothing. I knocked again, but still gently. My father was downstairs in his study, and while like I say, things had quietened down a little, he was still on alert. This time, there was stirring from within.
‘Is it time for make supper already?’ a sleepy voice groaned.
I clicked the door open and peered in. ‘It’s me, Anya. No, it’s not time for making supper but it is time for a life-changing experience.’
‘You not make sense.’
I slipped inside, closing the door behind me. ‘Just get up, Anya, and I’ll explain.’
She heaved herself up on one elbow, blinked hazily in the half-light of drawn curtains. ‘What experience? Sleep only experience Anya need this moment.’
‘Your bikini,’ I said. ‘Remember?’
She blinked again, seemed to be struggling to bring something to recall. Then her pudgy face was flickering into slow understanding.
‘I have time to thinking,’ she said, ‘and I not thinking it good idea any more.’
‘But you said you liked my father! Very fine man—that’s what you said!’
‘He like my cooking. He keep Anya around for cooking. That good enough.’
‘But don’t you want more out of life?’
‘Yes. Sleep. Goodnights.’
She lay back again, pulled the blanket over her head to shut me out. I grabbed it and pulled it down again. She glared back, glared daggers at me.
‘Look, Anya,’ I said, ‘you have to do this. Think of the future! You can’t spend the rest of your life as a governess. I’ll grow up, leave home and you’ll be out of a job.’
‘Someone else take Anya. Always someone else with childrens for look after.’
‘But that someone else might not treat you so well as my father treats you. What are you going to do then? There are some pretty hairy stories out there about governesses, you know. Not all of them get their own room to sleep in.’
‘They definitely not. Some are made to sleep in the shed. In the garden.’
‘That not right. I complain if family send me to shed.’
‘And be thrown off the job before you even finish speaking,’ I said firmly. ‘Come on, Anya, this is your only chance for some kind of better future.’
‘If you saying so,’ she sighed uncertainly. ‘What I do?’
‘Hit him with your bikini! I told you, he needs to see the real you, the you you’ve kept hidden all this time.’
‘What if he not like what he see?’
She had a point. Some men like large women, true, and she was…well…large but—but then, that wasn’t the point of this exercise.
‘He’ll like you, Anya. Trust me. Come on! Get up!’
She swung her ample legs round and heaved herself upright. As she sat there on the edge of the bed, with not a lot going for her and all of it about to be exposed to the world, I felt a pang of guilt. She’d got caught up in a conflict that had not been of her own making and was about to become a casualty of it. I guessed a lot of wars are fought like that, the innocent the first and the biggest losers. I figured I was only doing what countless generals before me had done. Didn’t make me feel any better, though.
‘You’ve still got it, I take it,’ I said. ‘I mean, you haven’t just thrown it out.’
‘It in drawer!’ she said, pained. ‘I not throw it out.’
‘Okay, okay. So look, I’ll step outside and you change into it.’
She didn’t answer, just sort of glared at me again as I slipped back onto the landing. She wouldn’t be long. At least, I hoped she wouldn’t. I glanced down the stairway, listened hard to the sounds coming from my father’s study, but he was busy tapping keys on his laptop. Writing another article, no doubt. Part of his job as a scientist is to look as if he knows what he’s talking about, and a long stream of magazine submissions containing big words and complex formulae are his way of maintaining that illusion. I knew that a rival had publicly questioned his research and he wasn’t happy about that. After all, he’s the great Doctor Pellegrino, the world-renowned scientist with the Nobel Prize just within his grasp, and no one, but no one questions the research of the great Doctor Pellegrino, the world-renowned scientist with the Nobel Prize just within his grasp. One thing was for sure: that keyboard would be smoking yet a while.
I glanced back at the door, pressed an ear to it to listen for sounds of movement. There was a shuffling of some sort but no more. I pushed the door open a little again.
‘Anya? Are you okay?’
‘I having trouble!’ she called back. ‘How this part go on?’
‘Top part. Part that holds—’
‘Yeah, yeah! I get the picture. It’s just like putting a bra on, no different.’
‘But there no clip on back!’
I thought for a moment and she was right. The one bikini I had was the same, had to be put on in a different way.
‘You’ve got three holes, one large and two smaller ones there—right?’ I started to explain.
‘You put your head through the big hole and your arms through the smaller ones, and you pull it down and over yourself like you were putting on a T-shirt.’
‘Okay. I try.’
I pulled the door closed again to give her some privacy, glanced down to my father’s study, wondered if he’d heard any of this. The tapping on the keyboard had stopped but that could mean anything. Maybe he was checking something, something to be used in a blistering broadside against his now bitter enemy, possibly some facts, more probably some dirt from the past to destroy this guy’s credibility and thereby any hope of anything he said being taken seriously. Either way, there was silence down there and—and the door to his study opened.
I froze, not daring to move. From where I was standing, I could see him perfectly, and he me if he looked up. I watched as it swung back…he marched out…headed for the kitchen. I heard water being run, the kettle being switched on, the clang and clatter of cups being moved and teaspoons being rummaged, and I felt myself breathe again. Making coffee, obviously.
I glanced back at Anya’s door, hoping she wasn’t ready yet, hoping even more that she wouldn’t call out with some other problem. She seemed to be taking her time, though, and that was good. I was trying hard not it imagine it, trying to fight off images of that great bulk squeezing itself into that tiny outfit. It wasn’t easy. So I busied myself with watching the kitchen doorway again, concentrated on listening for the sound of water being poured, the sure sign that my father would soon be back in his study. It came all too slowly, was followed by him taking his time spooning sugar into the cup—taking a sip—finally throwing the teaspoon in the sink and coming back. I shrank against the wall, hoping he was too preoccupied to look up. He was and he didn’t. But I didn’t relax until the door of his study closed softly on him again. And it was then that I knew I had to get this over with. Fast.
I leaned against the door, whispered urgently through it—
‘Anya? Are you ready?’
—and the words I needed to hear floated back.
‘Da. Anya ready.’
I braced myself, opened the door. She stood there before me in all her humungous glory. And it was as bad as I’d feared. No, scrub that. It was worse.
To say a bikini looked wrong on her would be an understatement. It would be like saying a moustache would look wrong on the Mona Lisa. It just doesn’t cut it. There was too little bikini, too much her—it was a simple as that. I won’t even try to describe it except maybe to say it looked like two band-aids stretched round a pumpkin.
But she seemed pleased with it, even seemed pleased with herself. There was a full-length mirror in her room, I knew, and I figured she must have checked herself out before allowing the outside world to see her and, yeah, somehow or other, liked what she saw.
‘It look good, no?’ she beamed.
I swallowed hard, gulped down the words I wanted to say before they could escape and ruin my master plan. ‘Er…yeah, looking really good,’ I lied.
‘Your father like it, maybe?’
‘Very maybe,’ I lied again. ‘He’s downstairs in his study. Why don’t you go and try it out on him?’
‘Okay. You come with me?’
‘No, no! This is your moment, Anya. I wouldn’t dream of intruding. No, I’ll stay here and watch things as they unfold.’
‘Is good idea. I go alone.’
She squeezed past me and waddled down the stairs. As she reached his door, she paused to look up at me again—for encouragement, probably. I responded with a good-luck smile and a thumbs-up. She would need both.
She knocked on the door. The tapping on the keyboard stopped, my father calling out irritably.
‘Who is it?’
‘It Anya, professor. I have something showing you.’
‘I’m rather busy right now, Anya. Can’t this wait?’
‘It very important, professor.’
‘All right but make it quick.’
She clicked the door open and stepped in.
You ever had one of those moments when you don’t have to see someone to know what they’re thinking? Yeah, I had one of those then. I guess it started with the stunned silence that roared up the stairs and hit my ears with the force of an explosion. There was nothing. I mean, I’m not just talking about a lack of sound here, I’m talking about an un-sound, a total vacuum of credulity that makes you wonder if there really is any order in the universe. It didn’t last long.
‘Anya!’ —My father.
‘You like?’ —Anya.
‘But—what are you doing?’
‘Anya dress for professor see real me,’ she said innocently. ‘It not enough professor like my apple cake.’
‘Maybe professor marriage Anya?’
‘I…that is to say…You…Out of the question, out of the question!’
‘But professor not like Anya, then?’
‘No!—I mean, yes!—I mean—’
‘Then why no marriage Anya? I cook good, I clean good, I wear bikini for professor—what wrong with marriage Anya?’
‘There are hundreds of reasons. My work! My reputation! I’m not divorced yet—that’s it, I’m not divorced yet. I can’t marry anyone until I’m divorced!’
Yeah, that’s how it happened. But as it happened, I noticed something. As my father was speaking, so his voice seemed to be getting louder, and that could mean only one thing: he was edging towards the door, making his escape.
‘But Anya wait for professor get divorced!’ she was saying now. ‘Anya wait years! Anya know you like her.’
‘Madam!’ my father blustered. ‘If I have ever given the impression that I was in any way interested in you, be assured it was entirely unintentional!’
I could see him now, his own portly frame backing out of his study, retreating like an army on the run from a ruthless enemy.
‘But my apple cake! My pasta! You say only Anya cook pasta way you like!’
And she was following him out, a huge bulk of determination that he couldn’t hope to defeat.
‘There’s more to marriage than apple cake and pasta, Anya! There’s love!’
‘Love! Ah, now professor speak Anya’s language. Come let Anya show professor love!’
She lunged for him, I swear she lunged for him. And my father did the only thing he could: he turned and ran. He yanked the front door open with such force, he almost tore it off its hinges. Then he was gone. I slipped off the landing and into my room. The last I saw of him, it was through my bedroom window, him running as fast as his short legs would carry him.
I wanted to laugh but I couldn’t. I mean, the whole plan had worked out even better than I’d expected but I knew what was going to happen next. I just went back out onto the landing to find Anya standing down below and looking bewildered.
‘He not like my bikini,’ she almost wailed. ‘How he not like my bikini?’
‘Men are like that,’ I shrugged as I dropped down the stairs to her. ‘Unpredictable, mostly. Look, you get dressed again and we’ll wait for my father to cool down a little. I’m sure he’ll think differently when he comes back.’
She nodded and heaved herself back upstairs. I watched her go. Yeah, she’d need to be dressed for what was going to happen next. And it did. Like I thought it would. Like I’d planned.
I was standing right beside it when the phone rang. I picked it up after the first ring. It was my father.
‘Elisa? Is that you?’
‘You were expecting Batman?’
‘Elisa, listen! You must tell Anya she has to leave.’
‘Leave!’ I said, affecting all innocence. ‘Why, what has she done?’
‘She…It is of no consequence. Just tell her to leave.’
‘What’s happened? Where are you? I thought you were working in your study.’
‘I am calling from a neighbour’s house. I had to leave in a hurry and did not have time to pick up my mobile. Please, tell her to leave. Tell her to leave NOW!’
‘Well, I will if you like but—Oh, hang on. She’s coming down the stairs. Do you want to tell her yourself?’
‘NO! No, better you tell her.’
I looked up as Anya dropped down off the last stair, didn’t attempt to cover the mouthpiece. ‘It’s my father. He says you have to leave.’
‘You father say I leave?’ she snorted. ‘I already decide I leave. I not stay where I not good for be marriaged.’
‘Marriage!’ I said. ‘My father asked you to marry him!’
‘I did no such thing!’ he shouted down the phone. ‘It was her! SHE wanted to marry ME!’
‘So take her up on it,’ I said. ‘She’s the best you can hope for.’
‘Just tell her to go! Now!’
‘But why? What’s she done?’
‘He not like my bikini,’ Anya interrupted. ‘It look good but he not like it.’
‘Why not? Didn’t it fit him? Why was my father trying on your bikini, anyway?’
‘I WAS NOT!’ he screamed down the phone line. ‘IT WAS HER!’
‘Hey, what you do in your spare time is no business of mine,’ I said. ‘So you want her to leave—right?’
‘I think she is, actually,’ I said, and I was probably right. Anya was going back upstairs to her room, probably to pack her few belongings prior to a return to the street. ‘What about severance pay? You can’t just throw her out with nothing.’
‘Anything as long as she leaves!’
‘Okay, you got any cash lying around?’
‘In my study. Look in my desk, second drawer down. You will find a cash box. Give her 200 euros and TELL HER TO LEAVE!’
‘Okay, okay! You want to hang on there or will you call back?’
‘I will call back in ten minutes. Make sure she is gone by then.’
I hung up and went to his study. The cash was there, just as he’d said, and quite a lot of it. I took 300 for Anya, not the 200 he’d said. I didn’t feel guilty about it: she’d need every cent in the days to come, and I still felt bad about having set her up like this.
I got back to the hall just as she was coming down the stairs again.
‘Anya, this is for you,’ I said, holding it out. She took it without a moment’s hesitation.
‘I go now,’ was all she said, and she left. Just like that. Without a backward glance.
In a way, I was sorry to see her go. She’d been kind enough in her own way, and a good enough cook, but I needed her out of the way, I needed my father’s cosy plans for playing happy families scotched at every corner. And so she walked out of my life. Last I heard, she’d got a job, a proper job at the holding centre in Lampedusa, where desperate immigrants land after the boat crossing from Africa, so I kind of did her a favour, really.
But all that lay in the future. Just then, I had my father to face. And I knew that, in the short ten minutes since his last call, he’d have had the time to do a little thinking and maybe put two and two together. Yeah, I knew what was waiting for me.
Right on cue, the phone started ringing.
The title is No, Papa. I’m not putting this up as an e-book, at least not immediately. This one I want to try with Mainstream, which involves finding a literary agent willing to take it on. Let the search commence…