Your Father’s Hair

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From halfway across the Piazza San Marco, he could recognize her:  only his mother was capable of wearing such a hat. The mothers of his friends wore monstrosities – tea cThinkstock - Your Father's Hair (7)osies, waste-paper baskets, dustbin lids – but his own mother always wore eminently elegant and entirely memorable creations, each more paintable than the last. And she had been painted, many times and by many men: Nicholas had a pseudo-fauve mother and a pseudo-cubist mother, a pointillist mother and an abstract expressionist mother, and all manner of squiggly, angular, diaphanous mothers done in everything from charcoal to ink to pastel.

His real mother – who, beautiful though she was, always seemed merely a preliminary version of some much more permanent creation – was sitting at a table outside Café Florian, a broad-brimmed, flat-crowned hat set at a rakish angle on her head.

It imparted a slightly Hispanic look to her pale and pixie-like features. She threw him a Hispanic glance from underneath the brim of the hat as he strode up to her, hands thrust in pockets and segs clicking loudly on the paving-stones, and clumsily took a seat at her table.

“I could hear you a mile off,” she said in her mellifluous, mocking drawl, her eyes shooting down to the thick-soled brown brogues that he was trying to fit in under the surprisingly small table. “Do they actually still wear those things in Oxford?”

“And I could see you a mile off,” he responded, ignoring her question. “God, it’s hot.”

Emma Beaufort studied her son as he ripped off his linen jacket and mopped his brow with a crumpled handkerchief. The poor boy always seemed so much at odds with the world – swatting at flies, shooing away wasps, clapping his hands over imaginary mosquitoes. He was just like his father in that respect, only pleasingly ineffectual. Nicholas’ father got really angry with flies, and would kill them with a single, cold-blooded swipe of his massive palm … Nicholas loosened his tie, shooting out a leg as he did so and causing Emma’s cappuccino to spill into its saucer. The waiter, who had materialized from nowhere, arched a patronizing eyebrow at him.

imsis750-083“I’ll have what you’re having,” he told his mother, instantly regretting the gruffness with which the words had come out.

Emma ordered a cappuccino and followed this sentence with several more in her sonorous, sing-song Italian, eliciting a laugh and a shrug from the waiter, who couldn’t have been much older than Nicholas himself. Even at the age of forty-eight she was still flirting with the waiters, Nicholas observed with distaste.

Not that she looked anything like forty-eight: she seemed to get younger every time he saw her.

“I see you’re still …” Nicholas began, but thought better of it. “Still enjoying life out here,” he said, with a great display of clearing his throat.

“Thoroughly, my dear. How’s Oxford?”

Always the same trick, thought Nicholas: turning answers into questions. What would be a mark of politeness in anyone else was a highly-developed technique in his mother, the technique of an experienced tennis player who returns your finest serve at twice the speed.

“Terrific,” he attempted. “How’s Fabrizio?”

But the ploy never seemed to work when he tried it. His mother simply laughed and said something in Italian to the waiter, who had returned with Nicholas’ cappuccino and a glass of water. The waiter gave a wolfish smile and made a gesture with his silky, olive-skinned hand the significance of which was a mystery to Nicholas. “Ma abbastanza,” she called out to the waiter as he departed, “abbastanza!’”467886111

“Fabrizio,” said Emma, switching back to the smooth drawl she employed when talking to her son, “Fabrizio is, as far as I know, painting toucans in Guatemala. Or it could be Nicaragua,” she added; “I always confuse them.”

“There’s a war going on in Nicaragua,” said Nicholas, reddening as he spoke. He had recently attended an Amnesty International lecture on Central America. For the space of twenty-four hours he had seriously contemplated throwing in his degree to go out there and do something about it.

“I’m sure there is,” Emma replied. “But there’s so little one can do about it, isn’t there?” She did hope her son wasn’t going to become an Angry Young Man: he would never be able to carry it off. “Yes, he’s on a mad nature trip; says he’s fed up with painting feathers in hats … How is your father?” she suddenly asked, propping her chin on her white-gloved index finger and staring out at the pigeons circling in the square.

“He came up to Oxford the other week and took me out to lunch,” said Nicholas. “Had some business in Daventry or somewhere awful. He seems well enough.” Nicholas waited for his mother to ask him more, but no inquiry was forthcoming. “He’s buying a weekend cottage down in Dorset.”

Emma’s eyes flickered just perceptibly as she scrutinized the pigeons.

“Says he’s fallen in love with the countryside down there.”

“Can’t be all he’s fallen in love with,” said Emma.

“Well, no …” Nicholas blushed. His father’s new lover was distressingly young and attractive. “No …”

They sat and drank their lukewarm cappuccinos, exchanging tense smiles. Nicholas noticed that his mother had half-slipped off her shoe and was swinging it gently on the end of her foot – a motion that drew attention to her slim, shapely calves and delicate ankles. Something about her bones had always reminded him of birds’ wings. Her vanity was really indescribable.

Thinkstock - Your Father's Hair (6)“Smoke?” said Nicholas, in that rough, bullish voice that seemed to belong to someone else entirely. He reached across the table and offered his mother a cigarette.

“No thank you, dear,” his mother replied, opening a silver cigarette case and producing a cigarette different from anything Nicholas had seen before. “I only smoke these nowadays.”

Nicholas fussed with a box of matches. There was a slight wind blowing. Emma coped with the situation gracefully.

“I saw that photograph of you in Harper’s,” said Nicholas, wrapping his index finger round his cigarette and narrowing his eyes as he spoke. “I assume the article was a pack of lies.”

“I wouldn’t know,” said Emma. “I didn’t read it.” This was not strictly true. She had not yet seen the article in print; but she had primed the journalist very carefully. “People write the most awful rot,” she said.

And yet, reflected Nicholas, he wouldn’t be surprised if the article – the extremely sycophantic article – were true. From being a Society beauty in her youth, his mother had aged into a Society myth – with the added spice that she no longer belonged to Society. Nicholas had a vague but vivid notion of his mother’s complex career, which involved two broken engagements before the age of twenty-one, the brilliant marriage to his brilliant father, a string of adulteries on both sides, and then the much-publicized divorce suit which for a very brief (but, in memory, very long) period of Nicholas’ early adolescence had had the status of a national event.

There had followed another marriage, another scandal, another divorce – and, of course, yet more paintings and photographs and articles, yet more portraits of this woman who had been described variously as ‘An upper-class Twiggy’ and ‘A latter-day Lady Caroline Lamb’.

Nicholas had never fully understood, however, what it was that had driven his mother abroad, and kept her there for so long. She lived a mysterious life, communicating by means of twenty-page letters or not at all, and Nicholas doubted whether he had spent more than twenty hours in her company over the past three, four – could it be five years? Yes: five years since she had kicked the dust of England from her feet and moved to Venice, changing addresses frequently and always receiving visitors in cafés and restaurants. She had money, that was for sure; she had men; but Nicholas found something both infinitely sad and essentially ridiculous about the way she lived now, trading not just on past triumphs but on the triumphs of an age long since gone. His mother, with her bright eyes and bird-like bones, was a pterodactyl, he realized: he had a sudden appalling vision of how she would look at the age of ninety, and a chill went through him.

“Tell me about Oxford,” his mother said.

“Oh, it’s fine,” said Nicholas, without much conviction.465895493

“That girl you told me about – what was her name now – Geraldine, Guinevere –?”

“Gwendoline,” said Nicholas. “Oh, that was all over a long time ago. Yes … No … I am at present … unattached.”

There was something so pompous about the way he said this that even he, catching his mother’s eye, had to find it funny: for a split second they maintained eye contact, then threw back their heads and burst out laughing.

Even Emma’s laugh was silvery. “So am I, my dear,” she said at last, wiping a tear of laughter from the corner of her eye with the tip of a gloved finger. “And I’m beginning to think that it’s no bad state to be in.”

“You surprise me,” said Nicholas. Something about this sentence was all wrong. He had meant it as a genuine observation, but it came out sounding cynical and dry. Or rather, it came out as his attempt to sound cynical and dry. He reddened slightly and scratched at his parting.

“You have your father’s hair,” Emma observed, eyeing him carefully.“I’m glad you don’t wear it short like everyone else these days. Anyway,” she went on, her tone brightening, “where are you off to next? I find it so hard to keep track of these complex itineraries of yours.”

“I’m meeting Giles this afternoon and we’re taking the five o’clock train to Florence. His parents have got a villa down there.”

“And you’ll be staying there?”

“For a fortnight or so, yes. We thought we might travel around a bit. See a bit of Tuscany.”

“Giles is the one who’s reading Art History?”

“Marine Biology.”

“Ah, yes. I remember your telling me. Well,” said Emma, drawing a deep breath and letting it out as what was almost a sigh, “if you’re catching the five o’clock train, perhaps we ought to Thinkstock - Your Father's Hair (5)adjourn for lunch? There’s a rather sweet place just round the corner I don’t think you’ve been to before.”

With a scarcely perceptible nod – more a flutter of the eyelashes – Emma summoned the waiter. Nicholas insisted on paying, taking a certain malicious glee in interrupting the duet his mother was trying to initiate with the waiter. Crumpled notes of various currencies were handed back and forth until Nicholas, locating an Italian banknote of a high denomination, gave it to the waiter and told him to keep the change.

“You overtipped him grossly,” observed Emma under her breath.

“It’s Daddy’s money,” was Nicholas’ reply.

“Well, then, shall we go?”

As she spoke these words, something terrible happened.

Nicholas and she got to their feet simultaneously, and Nicholas, lurching forward to pick up the jacket that he had thrown across the chair between them, knocked the hat off her head. With horror, in a single instant which lasted aeons, he perceived that the top of his mother’s head was almost completely bald: only a few brittle strands of auburn hair covered the pale, the terribly egg-like scalp.Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, Italy

Nicholas dived for the hat, which had rolled under the table, and, from his position on the ground, handed his mother the hat without looking in her direction. He got up and made a big show of dusting off his trousers, slapping and banging at them for all he was worth whilst he studied the photographer taking pictures of tourists in the middle of the square. Only when his thighs were stinging did he turn round to see that the hat was safely back in place and his mother’s face had aged twenty years.

Nicholas was never to forget the look they exchanged.

“Well,” he said, offering her his arm with all the stiffness of a bridegroom, “how about investigating that restaurant, then?”

 By Jonathan Steffen

First published in Signals 3, London Magazine Editions 2001.