Lillian and the Italians

Lillian And The Italians

This is Chapter Three of Lillian. If you want to see the opening chapter, it’s on my website at    If you’re diving straight in here, all you need to know is that Lillian, a 50-year-old widow from Sussex, has come to Venice to find her ‘rolling stone’ son Andrew, who left England four years ago. On the island of Burano she has met Carlo, Andrew’s business partner. He’s taking her to dine at the famous Cipriani restaurant on Torcello. The boy Marcello is the son of a neighbour who’s looking after Carlo’s sick wife. The year is 1966.

Outside the front door Marcello jumped nimbly into a smart motorboat the size of a Venetian taxi-launch. He was coming with them to Torcello, Carlo said, to stay with his grandmother. They helped Lillian aboard. There was a small curtained cabin, but she elected to sit on a folding padded seat in the cockpit. Marcello stood inside Carlo’s arms, holding the wheel as they puttered past the berthed barges and skiffs, under another wooden bridge and out into the lagoon.

Carlo increased speed, to Marcello’s whooping delight, and they skimmed between fishing nets slung from low poles and on into the channel the ferry had used. Now there were marshes on both sides, the reeds thick with a plant the colour of heather. Carlo gunned the motor down and they turned into a narrower canal; branches overhanging a low wall drooped almost into the water. A long S-bend brought them to a low slender stone bridge. Fifty yards further the canal ended in a sharp curve under a second bridge. Other launches were moored along the final stretch, taxis from the city and a few smaller motorboats. Carlo deftly slipped between two of these craft, cutting the motor, and looped a rope over a wobbly pole in the water.

Marcello was ashore in seconds. Carlo gave Lillian his hand as she stepped onto the bank. They walked up to the bridge. Beyond the canal stood a two-storey pale-yellow building with a single gable in its red shingle roof. A sign on a wooden frame with climbing plants and an awning proclaimed it to be the Locanda Cipriani.

The boy took the lead as they walked along a tree-lined path toward a church of pale brick and stone without the ornamentation that characterized Venice’s churches. It had a separate bell-tower, similarly plain, and a red brick baptistery with a colonnade of worn slim pillars. This was the oldest cathedral in the lagoon, Carlo told her, with mosaics dating back to the eleventh century.

Marcello led them through the wrought-iron gate of a private house opposite the church. Immediately he ran a few steps to a sinister-looking statue of a large figure with a face like a gargoyle, hunched in a half-sitting position under vines laden with tiny white grapes. To Lillian’s surprise the boy climbed into the lap of this monstrosity, wrapped his arms round its thick neck and kissed the fearsome face, giggling as he did so.

Carlo laughed. This was the home of Silvia’s parents-in-law, he explained; the old man was one of the custodians of the buildings. The pretence had been made that this statue was the boy’s great-grandmother who had been turned to stone as a punishment for gossiping. Marcello continued to giggle and hugged closer to the great head.

The sun was low in the sky but there was still a fair amount of light. Lillian produced her camera, opened the shutter to its widest aperture and took a couple of pictures of the boy, who posed proudly on the gargoyle’s lap.

‘I’d like copies of those, if you wouldn’t mind,’ Carlo said as Marcello disappeared into his grandparents’ house. He made no effort to follow the child, but ushered Lillian out of the garden and back along the path in the direction of the Cipriani.

‘If you want to go in and see the family, please don’t hold back on my account,’ said Lillian. ‘I’m in no hurry to eat.’

‘I’m afraid there’s what you might call “bad blood” between me and them,’ Carlo said. ‘Silvia’s husband and I are cousins and we were boyhood friends, but later we had a – a falling-out.’

‘Silvia’s a very good friend to your wife,’ Lillian said when he showed no sign of elaborating on this feud.

‘She is indeed,’ he agreed.

‘It broke my heart to lose my husband last year –’ was it his resemblance to Andrew that made this easier to say? – ‘but at Silvia’s age it’s a much greater tragedy. Will she always wear black?’

‘Until she marries again. That’s the custom here.’

‘I hope she does. It’s a terrible waste of such a beautiful and gentle person. And the boy will need a father, especially when he’s growing up.’

Carlo hesitated. Then he gave a bitter laugh that bore echoes of his wife’s. ‘I’m Marcello’s father,’ he said.

 * * *

Carlo was clearly a familiar and favoured patron of the Cipriani: he was greeted warmly and with much joshing by the waiters. The maître d’ seated Lillian with some ceremony at an outside table under a lattice of vines with bunches of black grapes. Illumination came from hanging oil-lamps converted to hold electric light bulbs; in the slowly deepening twilight they glowed feebly.

‘I’ve been coming here for years,’ Carlo said as he sat down opposite her. ‘I used to bring ladies here in the days when I made my living as a gigolo.’ He laughed cheerfully. ‘They’re probably thinking I’m back in business.’

‘I certainly hope not,’ Lillian said primly, almost snatching the menu proffered by the maître d’ which afforded a measure of camouflage for her embarrassment.

She declined a further apéritif. Carlo ordered another Tom Collins for himself. He insisted that she try two of the house specialities, their own cannelloni and calf’s liver in an onion sauce.

When their order had been taken and Carlo’s drink arrived, he leaned back on the rear legs of his chair and lit a cigarette. He smiled at Lillian.

‘It’s a long story.’

‘Which one?’ she enquired coldly: ‘Andrew’s or yours?’ The two revelations that he was Marcello’s father and had been a gigolo had combined to blunt her open-mindedness towards this handsome young man whose life and fortune seemed to have been so closely linked with her son’s.

Carlo laughed again, an easy natural laugh. ‘Both,’ he said. ‘They’re inextricably involved. Even now, though it’s months since I last saw or even spoke to him.’

‘I’m not sure I understand.’

‘I don’t expect you to. In fact I doubt that you ever could. There’s so much you don’t know. And I’m not sure how much I should tell you.’

‘I’d honestly rather you didn’t hold anything back. Andrew and I were always very close, although I guessed he was – keeping things from me even before he came here.’

‘Well, as an Italian I’m used to male secretiveness. But I’m only half-Italian. My mother was English, or at least Scottish. She was a “free thinker”, one of those unconventional women who reacted against a Victorian upbringing. She died in France when I was sixteen, but long before then we had a complete rapport. There was nothing I couldn’t tell her, discuss with her.’

‘And your father?’ In spite of her reservations Lillian’s curiosity had been roused.

‘Oh, he was just a simple fisherman who captured the heart of an eccentric Scotswoman who came to paint Burano. He loved her, although he probably never began to understand her. He died when I was only a child, so I didn’t really know him. Theirs is a fascinating story in itself.’ He took another gulp at his drink. ‘But that’s by the by. I only mentioned my mother because there were things I felt able to confide in her which most sons wouldn’t be able to discuss with their mothers.’ He made a bland gesture with his hands.

‘I wish I had some inkling of what you’re talking about,’ Lillian said helplessly.

‘I’m sorry, Mrs Rutherford. I suppose the problem is with the things I’m trying not to talk about.’

‘Frankly you frighten me. Your wife seemed to imply that Andrew has left Venice for good. Did he leave under some kind of cloud? Has he committed some sort of crime?’

Carlo smiled. ‘No, nothing like that. Although –’ he laughed briefly – ‘Andrew would have loved to leave Venice under a cloud, as you put it. He does have a flair for the melodramatic. Actually there was a bit of a scandal here a couple of years ago, when a few people did leave very much under a cloud. No, really, it’s just that – there are some things it’s not easy to talk about with somebody else’s mother.’ He tailed off with another eloquent gesture.

His parents’ encapsulated history, with its aura of romance and adventure, had helped to dispel Lillian’s fleeting hostility. Now, as she perceived the direction into which his story seemed to be leading, she began to feel the return of embarrassment. Affecting a casualness that was far from real, she said, ‘Don’t feel you have to spare my feelings. I know that before he left London Andrew had a whole string of girlfriends. I’m afraid I was very strictly brought up myself, but I think I came to accept that Andrew adopted a totally different standard.’

She paused, and then, since Carlo still seemed reluctant to continue, she added: ‘You’ve already told me that Silvia’s son is your child, so if Andrew has some similar dark secret, then for God’s sake tell me. I can appreciate your – your respect for my age and the fact that I’m his mother, and I don’t expect you to spell it out in chapter and verse, but please, you must tell me something.’

Carlo sighed. ‘Oh dear,’ he said. ‘It’s not going to be easy.’

The cannelloni arrived at that moment, along with a carafe of white wine. As they ate, Carlo began to fill in the missing three and a half years of her son’s life.

Their first year had been a struggle, he said. UK Exchange Control penalties, two extravagant months in Paris and the South of France on the way to Venice, and the down-payment on the lease of an attic flat in a decaying palace on the Cannaregio virtually exhausted Andrew’s capital.

‘Why didn’t you live in your house in Burano?’ Lillian asked.

‘Burano wasn’t chic enough for Andrew.’

‘But an attic was?’

‘An attic in a palazzo was,’ he said with a smile.

While Andrew modernized the apartment to advertise his potential in the interior design field, Carlo took a job as barman at the Europa Hotel where he’d worked once before. Thanks to some old contacts that Carlo was able to revive Andrew began to receive the odd commission: posters and exhibition catalogues; window-displays; the redecoration – at marginal rates – of a few small apartments.

As his reputation increased, the commissions became bigger and more frequent: house conversions in the hills to the north of Venice; a penthouse flat for a university professor in Padua; a ski lodge in Cortina for a film producer from Rome (Lillian and George had received a New Year card from Cortina in 1964); two villas on the Aga Khan’s Costa Smeralda in Sardinia; eventually, a small palace off the Giudecca for a nephew of Countess Volpi, the doyenne of Venetian society.

Carlo quit his job at the Europa so that he could supervise the ‘works-in-hand’, leaving Andrew free to move on to the design side of new projects. They rented the office in San Marco and engaged a secretary. Andrew now decided that it might after all be amusingly ‘déclassé’ to live on Burano and ‘commute’ to the office by motor-launch. They used the profits from the sale of their lease to damp-proof and modernize Carlo’s house, which had only been intermittently occupied since his father’s death in 1946. The installation of a shower and a bed that folded up into a closet converted Andrew’s studio at 253 San Marco into a pied-à-terre for those nights – ‘there were many of them,’ said Carlo – when his social life kept him in Venice.

Lillian leaned back as the waiter placed her main course in front of her. The calf’s liver was served in a sauce of onion and unfamiliar herbs. Carlo sent Lillian’s compliments to the chef. The maître d’ returned with a single long-stemmed yellow rose, the colour of the outside of the restaurant, with the chef’s compliments.

They watched through the lattice of vines the last minutes of a spectacular sunset. Carlo broke the silence:

‘I suppose you know he’s a terrible social-climber?’

Lillian laughed. ‘And a name-dropper!’ she said.

He grinned. ‘Is it true he knows Princess Margaret?’

‘He’s supposed to have met her at a couple of parties,’ Lillian said with a sceptical shrug.

‘And – excuse me asking this – is he really a second cousin of the Duke of Devonshire?’

Lillian laughed again with genuine delight. ‘“Second cousin” is a bit strong! My mother-in-law used to say her father’s family was “distantly related” to the Devonshires, but my husband and his brother always took it with a pinch of salt. We decided Andrew must get his snobbishness from his grandmother.’

Lillian felt another great surge of grief for George. How he would have loved to hear this latest instance of their son’s name-dropping his dubious ancestry! Would she ever again have someone to share these moments of droll humour with, she wondered; or would she now only laugh with strangers, like this grinning partner of Andrew’s who knew nothing of the aching sorrow behind her smile?

‘I was sure he was making it up,’ he confessed and went on to talk about Venetian high society while Lillian, her appetite lost, struggled to finish her meal. There was a constant round of parties, he told her: luncheons and dinners, receptions and cocktails, variously given by local notables and wealthy foreigners. Through his work and his ingenuity Andrew contrived to be on every guest list, cultivating the acquaintance of counts and countesses, princes and princesses, a French duke and duchess, even the former queen of one of the satellite Communist states.

‘One way or another he found a way to charm them all,’ Carlo said. ‘Andrew is a real chameleon, changing his colour to suit every set, every ambience.’

The apex of Andrew’s social career came in September 1964 when he was invited to the Volpi Ball, the most glittering event in Venice’s calendar which took place annually at the end of the film festival.

Although the Hemingway crowd had dispersed even before the author’s death in 1961 and the Jet Set had largely deserted mainland Italy in favour of Sardinia, anybody who was somebody – ‘and quite a few who were nobody,’ Carlo added – descended on Venice for at least part of ‘the Season’ which began in mid-August and culminated in Countess Volpi’s ball in the second week of September. Among the guests at the 1964 Volpi Ball were Jacqueline Kennedy, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Mick Jagger and Twiggy.

‘Andrew revelled in it,’ said Carlo. ‘He flew to Rome to order a new dress suit especially for the occasion.’

‘Did you go?’ Lillian asked.

‘Oh no, I wasn’t included in the invitation. He took an American sculptress and from what I heard, left her to fend for herself while he got himself introduced to as many of the bigger celebrities as he could corner. He talked about it for weeks.’

* * *

Lillian declined a dessert or a liqueur. She drank a cup of black coffee while Carlo ate a chunk of stale-looking local cheese and served himself from a bottle of grappa which the wine-steward left on the table.

She was sure there was more – much more – to be told. ‘You said something earlier about a scandal two years ago,’ she reminded him; ‘and some people leaving under a cloud. Was Andrew involved with these people?’

‘Well, yes, he was,’ Carlo admitted. ‘Except that he didn’t really get into that set until the year they left. For our first year we were busy just trying to make ends meet, although right from the start Andrew was sniffing out the local scene to see who was worth getting to know.’

‘But why did these people leave?’ Lillian persisted.

Carlo paused for a moment, sipping his grappa, before embarking on a description of what he called ‘the moral climate of Venice’. In spite of tourists and day-trippers and the Jet Set it remained, he said, a small and gossipy community, very provincial: ‘a lot like Hastings, according to Andrew!’ Lillian laughed at this improbable comparison. Every season produced its crop of scenes and scandals, he went on, and certain families were known to have outrageous skeletons in their closets; but for the most part the residents led circumspect lives in a town where it was impossible to keep anything secret for long.

In recent years a number of very rich new immigrants had settled in the city, buying and restoring apartments and palaces, entertaining and befriending the local nobility and expatriate artists. During the summer of 1964, one of these newcomers had exceeded the relatively elastic bounds of propriety by insulting the wife of the chief-of-police on the beach at Lido. The incident triggered a strong reaction from the normally easygoing questura.

The first victim of the ensuing ‘purge’ was not the man who had offended the questore’s wife but an art-dealer from London who, despite the intercessions of influential friends, was expelled from the country. He was put on a train to Paris where, within days, he committed suicide. Others were similarly ejected or had their residency permits revoked. A few more chose flight as the wisest course, resulting in a minor exodus in the autumn of 1964.

‘And was Andrew involved in this “exodus”?’ Lillian asked.

‘It was about then that we moved to Burano,’ said Carlo. ‘Although this really had nothing to do with it.’

‘But why did they leave?’ she enquired again. ‘This poor man who killed himself, what was he guilty of?’

Carlo poured himself another grappa. ‘Well, the questore – chief-of-police – was a strange and vindictive man, a Sicilian. He had a few bees in his bonnet: Communists –’ he shrugged – ‘and one or two other things.’

She gave a derisive laugh. ‘Come now, Charles – I’m sorry – Carlo – I know I’m just a country bumpkin, but you can’t expect me to believe that people who could afford to restore palaces were Communist sympathizers.’

Carlo drained his glass at a single draught. He met her eyes levelly.

‘They were homosexuals,’ he said.

A waiter refilled Lillian’s coffee-cup. She picked it up with fingers that suddenly trembled. ‘Are you trying to tell me that my son is a homosexual?’ She pronounced the word in the popular English manner, with a long first ‘o’: Homer-sexual.

‘I’m sorry, Mrs Rutherford,’ Carlo said.

* * *

Lillian sat in the small cabin of the launch as it surged across the black waters of the lagoon under a deep violet sky in which only the moon and Venus were visible.

Grateful for the privacy, she wept. Bob Sadler had been right: Andrew was lost to her, further away than Sylvia and the grandchildren, as lost – almost – as George. The closeness she thought she’d shared with her son, the closeness of which she’d boasted to Carlo, had been founded on an illusion. She had never really known him, who he was – what he was.

Preoccupied with this revelation of a different Andrew from the one she’d come to find, she was unaware of the route the launch was taking until, just as they emerged under a canal bridge into St Mark’s Basin, ahead of them a cruise liner escorted by two tugs steamed majestically out of the Giudecca, blotting out the church of San Giorgio.

Awed in spite of herself, Lillian dried her eyes and went forward to stand beside Carlo, keeping her balance with her hands on the windshield. The launch rocked as they crossed the liner’s wake. She sat down on the padded seat in the cockpit and drank in the view of the floodlit Doge’s palace, the campanile and the Salute. Carlo smiled at her. Reducing speed as they entered the broad mouth of the Grand Canal, he pointed out some of the palaces and told her who lived or had lived in them.

Another memory surfaced from her honeymoon: the jolly gondolier who’d ferried them from the Rialto to St Mark’s, naming the palaces and their owners – counts and dukes and princes. She even recalled, faintly, the scandalous tales with which he’d regaled them of the lives of the nobility. George had been sceptical; Lillian believed every word because she wanted to believe that aristocrats still, in 1935, despite wars and revolutions, lived a life removed from the morals and conventions of ordinary people.

Now, repeating the experience thirty-one years later, these were the homes of people Andrew knew or had known. Here was the converted monastery that Barbara Hutton had bought early in her matrimonial career. Here, an exquisite Renaissance palazzo whose owner’s homosexual lover had sparked off the 1964 ‘purge’ by insulting the questore’s wife. Here, a low white building with a beautifully terraced garden that housed Peggy Guggenheim and her collection of modern art; she sometimes paraded drunk and nude on the terrace to attract passing gondoliers. Lillian was shocked at how easily she accepted this titbit of outrageous gossip (she knew that Peggy Guggenheim’s father had gone down with the Titanic; Titanic lore had been a hobby of George’s). Here was a stately sombre palace that had formerly belonged to Winston Churchill’s mistress (the notion of a rival for ‘Winnie’s’ darling Clementine was one that Lillian would not believe). Here was the British consulate; and so on – churches, galleries, showrooms, the homes of rich nobles and exiles.

As she must have done on her honeymoon, Lillian was content to sit back in the gently rocking boat and surrender herself to the spell of the moonlit canal. She twirled the stem of the yellow rose in her fingers. Glimpses of dim alleys and backwaters contributed as much to the aura of enchantment as did the blatant splendours of the Rialto Bridge or the floodlit Ca’ d’Oro. And yet, within the elegant drawing room of a building just before her hotel a family was watching television only feet above the water, as indifferent to the magic and mystery of the Grand Canal as the residents of a semi-detached house in Hastings to the road outside their front door.

‘I’m sure it hasn’t all been easy for you,’ she said, surprising herself with the calmness of her remark, as they glided to a standstill at the landing-stage of her hotel, ‘but how lucky you’ve been, you and Andrew, to have lived with all this.’

* * *

Island of Giglio

Fabrizio yawned. Too much local wine, too much dope. Also he was bored. For the second day running they had sailed the 50 kilometres to the volcanic outcrop of Montecristo only to find the sea too choppy for snorkelling. Il frocio (he always thought of him as ‘the queer’) lacked the nerve to try scuba-diving and after an unpleasant experience off Stromboli Fabrizio was wary of going down unaccompanied.

The Corsican girl had joined them for dinner again. Her mother had another headache. The girl was sure her mother was screwing one – or possibly all three – of her absent father’s crew. The liver in the purportedly best of Porto Giglio’s few restaurants had been indigestible, the red wine as heady as Marsala. The girl ate and drank with relish, prattling away to il frocio in French, a language in which Fabrizio was far from proficient.

Back on board his father’s yacht (half the length and a quarter of the draught of the Corsicans’) they drank more wine – and smoked. A moonlight swim failed to clear Fabrizio’s head. And the girl kneed him in the groin when he tried to fondle her breasts underwater, although he was certain she had been groping il frocio.

The lighthouse beam swept over the small harbour, briefly illuminating the girl sprawled on the padded banquette facing the cockpit. She was wearing Fabrizio’s robe. She wore it carelessly, exposing most of her over-large untanned breasts which were already beginning to sag. Her face was unmemorably pretty; the dyed blond hair, still wet, clung to her skull. Her eyes were closed but she was not asleep. A smile played at the corners of her mouth.

Reclining on a lounger inside the cockpit, il frocio was watching Fabrizio watch the girl, also with an amused expression. He too wore a towelling robe, drawn tightly across his chest with only his calves and feet exposed. Unlike the girl, who’d merely discarded her swimming costume in the aft cabin and put on the robe, il frocio had lingered in the forward cabin to dry and groom his hair. After the first joint and their swim he reverted to his usual mentholated English cigarettes, while Fabrizio and the Corsican girl rolled and smoked two more joints.

Sitting cross-legged on a cushion on the deck with his back against the gunwale, Fabrizio still wore his bathing trunks, a brief slip which barely contained a swelling erection. A few drops of water ran out of his hair and he shook his head. He felt a flare of anger that the girl seemed less interested in what he was putting on show than in that which il frocio modestly kept hidden.

Fabrizio rose unsteadily to his feet, crossed to the girl and tugged open the robe. Her eyes opened, she started to laugh and pushed him away with both hands. He clung to the robe and she rolled off the bench with the cushions still beneath her. Her head banged onto the deck and she shouted a curse as tears streamed from her eyes. The robe had fallen completely open. A thin neat scar crossed her belly: an appendectomy? A surgical abortion? The triangle of dark brown hair below the scar resembled damp moss.

Fabrizio fell on her and pawed at her breasts. She cursed him again and struggled. He put one hand over her mouth and with the other started to pull off his trunks, trapping the girl with his weight. He glanced up as the lighthouse beam passed over again. Il frocio still wore an amused expression. The sound of cats hissing and growling carried clearly across the water from the rocky hillside beyond the harbour.

The body beneath Fabrizio squirmed. After a last triumphant glare in the direction of the Englishman, he concentrated his attention on freeing himself from his trunks. His mouth slavered at the Corsican girl’s wobbling breasts with their wide flat nipples.

From his chair above the writhing pair Andrew Rutherford looked down and laughed.

* * * * *


I've worked in telecomms and journalism in London and the Persian Gulf, but have now settled back onto my native Sussex South Downs to a life of writing and rustic pursuits (pub-lunches and dog-walking!) I've published three novels:

SHAIKH-DOWN, my comic 'blueprint' (fairly blue) for a revolution on an island in the Persian Gulf.

THE DROPOUT: how does a sex-starved straight man deal with gay advances?

THE BEXHILL MISSILE CRISIS: the Horseman of the Apocalypse rides his motorcycle into the lives of four middle-class misfits in October 1962.

Extracts from these novels on my website:

LILLIAN AND THE ITALIANS is currently going the rounds of agents and publishers in the UK and USA. Hoping not to go back down the self-publishing road with this one.

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