‘Che cos’è la sua data di nascita?’ I turn my head sideways on the blood-soaked pillow. ‘9.5.34.’
Expressionless, the doctor in the Pronto Soccorso writes it down as a thought occurs to me, and I raise my head. ‘Domani il mio giorno natale.’
Hardly a joke, in the circumstances it merits a smile, but from this mirthless young man nothing is forthcoming. I lay my head down again. At least I seem to have stopped bleeding.
Birthdays were never made much of in our family. Mine, as I told the Italian doctor, is on 9 May and my brother’s too, though he is three years older than I am. The coincidence is always good for a laugh, particularly when it dawns that we must both have been conceived during the old August Bank Holiday, sex confined to the holidays perhaps, or unconfined by them. But that I should have had my beginnings in the cheerless surroundings of a boarding-house bedroom has always seemed to me a melancholy circumstance. Morecambe it would have been, or Filey, linoleum on the floor, jug and basin on the wash-hand stand, and the room smelling faintly of the methylated spirits my mother always brought for the pad on which she heated her curling tongs; meths for me, a lifetime later, still the smell of the seaside.
The kind of establishment we stayed in turned out its boarders, rain or shine, at ten in the morning and there was no coming back between meals, so it would have been done at night, the act itself stealthily undertaken, mindful of the strange bed and my two-year-old brother sleeping beside it and conscious, too, of the thin walls and the adjacence of other boarders, not sleeping perhaps, whose glances would have to be negotiated over the next morning’s sparse breakfast. Other people were always very much a consideration in my parents’ lives; mine, too, I suppose, so much of my timorous and undashing life prefigured in that original circumspect conjunction.
We were both born at home, my brother’s an awkward birth requiring forceps, with my mother’s screams said to have been heard down the street. I still have the bed, the polish at the foot of it scraped and scratched by my mother’s feet during the initial stages of that reluctant arrival. Had mine been a difficult birth, the persistence with which untoward events occur on and around my birthday would, though I am no believer in astrology, make a kind of sense. But I seem to have come into the world with no fuss at all, my mother recalling only the bedspread, embroidered with flowers and butterflies, and how the midwife, making the bed after an examination, would always exclaim: ‘Butterflies to the bottom!’
Neither my brother nor I ever had a party, the fact that our birthdays coincided not doubling the festivities but serving to cancel them out. By the time I was of an age to care about this, the war was on and parties and presents, like oranges and bananas, something that had been discontinued ‘for the duration’. In later years, things were to improve slightly but unless we made a point of getting our own presents, we’d build up a backlog of gifts ungiven that stretched back years. We were not particularly poor so there was no sense of deprivation about it; whatever deprivation my brother and I felt was ceremonial: it was not the actual presents we missed as the want of occasion. Other people made more of their lives than we did. Wanting birthdays, parties and presents was just another instance of the way our family never managed to be like other families. Even where birthdays were concerned we could not achieve ordinariness.
We sometimes tried, though. My parents’ birthdays came within a week of each other and so, like ours, tended to coalesce and we would buy them a joint present. Dad was shy and undemonstrative, so that, whatever the gift, the actual giving of it was guaranteed to put him off: he could never simulate the show of surprise and gratitude such occasions required. His coolest reception was for a coffee percolator, a present which ignored the fact that they had never drunk fresh coffee in their lives and weren’t going to start now. Dad rightly detected a hint of social aspiration in the gift, the message being that it might be nice if we were the kind of family that did drink fresh-brewed coffee. Dad would have none of it. ‘Faffing article’ was his way of describing it and in due course the jug part ended up in the cupboard under the sink where it came in handy when washing his hair.
Presents were fraught with peril, the subtext to ‘Many Happy Returns’ so often ‘I think you’re the kind of person who’d like this (or I wish you were).’ Even the longed-for bike I got when I was ten came with the same sort of message: not the dashing, speedy bike other boys had, or a racer with drop handlebars like my brother’s, mine was big, heavy and safe and, since it was still wartime, probably made out of the reconstituted iron railings that had been recently stripped from suburban walls in order to aid the war effort. Clumsy, upright and dependable, it was the kind of bike one went to church on, and I duly did.
Cut to twenty years later, and I have just learned to drive and am about to buy my first car. The general view seems to be that I need something solid and dependable, opinion favouring a Morris 1000 (‘Your sort of car’). But in the nick of time I remember my old bike and switch to a scootier primrose yellow Mini. With my next car I went even further and got a Triumph Herald, and while it didn’t quite have drop handlebars, it was at least a convertible.
It was only when I reached 50 and started looking back that I began to think there might be something inauspicious about my birthday, and tried to count the occasions around that time when I’d strayed close to the edge of life, even been at death’s door or somewhere in the vicinity. There had been the time in Sardinia in 1966, when I suddenly collapsed after vomiting blood. The island was still quite primitive, but was just beginning to be promoted as a holiday resort, chiefly by the Aga Khan, who had built a grand hotel but hadn’t yet got round to providing a hospital. In the meantime, the only medical centre was a semi-monastic establishment run by the Frate Bene Fratelli, an order of Franciscan friars.
Dying, like much else in Italy, is something of a spectator sport and the steps of the monastery were lined with sightseers awaiting the arrival of the more spectacularly sick. As I was borne in on a stretcher, black-shawled ladies gazed down at me, raised their eyes to heaven, and crossed themselves; I was obviously a goner. In more sophisticated medical surroundings I would, of course, have been in no danger at all, as all that had happened was that a duodenal ulcer had burst and without knowing it, I had been losing blood. Dramatic as it is, this is seldom a life-threatening condition (though my father had nearly died of something similar) and in normal circumstances a prompt blood transfusion will restore the drooping patient. But these were not normal circumstances. Diagnostic equipment was primitive and the chief weapon in the therapeutic armoury of these delightful monks seemed to be prayer. It was some time, therefore, before my complaint was diagnosed and when the remedy was agreed to be a blood transfusion, it was still a long time coming, the monks seemingly reluctant to fill what was so plainly a leaking bucket. So, for a few days, my life steadily drained away while the monks told their beads and somebody else told the Daily Mirror. ‘Fringe Boy in Deathbed Drama’ was the first my family heard of it.
At the lowest point of my fortunes my two companions went out into Olbia to find some supper. I was feeling ghastly, but it only came home to me how desperate my situation was when one of them kissed me. Since she had never kissed me before, she plainly did not expect me to be there when she returned. It was the kiss of death.
There was another portent besides. Finding me alone, two novice monks chose this moment to give me a bed bath. I was lying on the bed, stark naked and virtually drained of blood, when one of them lightly lifted my dick (which, in the circumstances, was the size of an acorn) and let it drop again. ‘E,’ he said, the simple monosyllable given a melancholy falling inflexion, eloquent of pity and resignation. That, at any rate, was one message. The other was more implicit and more sinister: namely, that he was unlikely to take such a liberty were the body he was washing not, in effect, dead already.
Fortunately, that night they began to transfuse me and I eventually received 12 pints of blood, given mostly by sailors from the nearby naval base. It was customary, at any rate in Sardinia, for blood donors to follow their blood to its destination, perhaps to see that it had gone to a good home. So, over the next ten days, I would wake to find a mute Italian sailor by my bed, smiling and twisting his hat in his hand and nodding reassuringly. I was even visited by would-be donors, those who had tried to give me blood, but who were from the wrong group. In those days I don’t suppose there was all that much to do in Sardinia, visiting the hospital quite a high point. Nowadays, they probably go water-skiing.
I wasn’t struck down again in the same way until May 1980 when I inadvertently took an aspirin. I remember looking in the glass and thinking that my face seemed to be acquiring an interesting artistic pallor, when I suddenly passed out, the aspirin having made my stomach bleed. That, too, was around my birthday, but in the intervening years the connection between birth and death had been maintained when I spent my 40th birthday at Russell Harty’s father’s funeral. Russell had been sent round by his mother to give a neighbour the not unexpected news that Fred had died. ‘Oh dear,’ said the neighbour, ‘I am sorry. Mind you, I had a shocking night myself.’
On my 50th birthday I was filming in Ilkley. Nothing untoward occurred until the evening, when I was taken out to supper by Michael Palin and Maggie Smith. Came my salad of mixed leaves and there, nestling among the rocket, were several shards of broken glass.
‘Very mixed,’ said Miss Smith.
‘No,’ said the waiter. ‘It’s a mistake.’
I reached the 1990s without mishap, though Miss Shepherd, the lady who lived for 15 years in a van in my drive, died at the end of April 1989, after which the undertaker rang up wondering if 9 May would be a suitable day for her funeral.
‘Why not?’ I said. I was only surprised that I hadn’t thought of it myself.
In the spring of 1992 I had arranged to go with a friend to Italy for the weekend. All being well, 9 May would find me in Todi. Writing that Italian name, I see it has a (German) death in it, but that is fanciful. What was not fanciful was that going to Italy meant that I would not be able to go to the funeral of a friend which, unsurprisingly, fell on my birthday.
The friend with whom I was going on holiday was Rupert Thomas. At that time, May 1992, I am not sure that I would have called him my partner, or indeed known what to call him, though partners is what we are now. Friend, I suppose I would have said then, though such a friendship is still novel enough for me not to know what to call it (and to hope to get away without calling it anything at all). Rupert is thirty years or so younger than I am and might easily be mistaken for my son. This embarrasses me, though not him, who has more reason to be embarrassed.
At that time, we did not actually live together, though what was to happen in Italy was one of the factors that brought this about.
Even now, ten years after the event, I am reluctant to acknowledge these arrangements both because that is the way I have always led my life, but also because I would prefer them not to be made explicit, just taken for granted. But though what was to happen still does not make entire sense to me, without avowing this friendship it makes no sense at all.
Our plane was due to arrive in Rome at 9.30 on Thursday evening. We were to collect a hire car and had arranged to spend the night at Ladispoli, a small seaside town twenty kilometres or so to the north, from where we could make an early start for Todi the following morning.
Ladispoli is a modern town from what little we can see of it in the dark, and we drive down straight suburban streets lined with shuttered two-storey villas, looking for our hotel. There is no one about, no lights in the houses hidden behind high walls hung over with a few dusty fig trees. It’s a place of Chekhovian dullness, the centre a long tree-lined street ending in a square that scarcely qualifies as a piazza, with one or two cafés still open and a few people sitting outside. Some boys ride round aimlessly on mountain bikes; there is a closed funfair and festoons of dead fairy lights in the trees.
Booking in at the hotel, we find there is no food to be had, and so walk back to the square where we have coffee and a sandwich. Paying the bill, I ask the woman at the counter the whereabouts of the sea, and she points me down the road. It’s now about eleven o’clock. And as I write these prosaic details down – the cashier, the time, the people sitting outside – I realise it’s in an effort to find meaning in what is about to happen, as if the time might explain it, or the dullness of the place, something that I may have missed, which might help it to make sense.
The distance from the café to what turns out to be a little promenade is only a few hundred yards along a sandy half-made road, past another line of shuttered villas. Rounding the corner onto the front, I see half a dozen young men sitting on the sea wall opposite. They are talking and some almost shouting, though not more vociferously than Italians often do. The instant we appear, and it is the instant, with no time to size us up or to say, as one might have conventionally scripted them to do, ‘Hello! Who’ve we got here?’ – no, quick as thought, two of them are coming across the road to meet us. And though they effectively block our way so that we stop, there is no break in their excited chatter, except that it now seems to include us, as if we have arrived, somehow opportunely, to illustrate a point in their argument, the Italian they are speaking not eloquent or expressive, or pleasant to listen to, as Italian is, but harsh, assertive, jabbering almost. In retrospect I see, as I run and rerun the scene in my head, that these two had come and stood too close, but there is no obvious threat or rancour, only a kind of feverishness to them which, retrospectively again (the debate never stopping), I put down to drink or drugs, or glue possibly (though too old for glue, surely?), like two boys seen once by the lake in Regent’s Park, pulling at their bags, then shouting hoarsely as if assailed, though no one was going near.
Suddenly the talking stops. The one blocking my way is smallish, with fair, curly hair, but his face now is a blank. Has he asked a question? ‘We’re English,’ I say in Italian. ‘We don’t understand,’ the nationality almost an excuse in itself, and I take a step back, meaning to go round and go on. Turning, I feel a blow across the side of my neck (I run my hand over it as I write, trying to decide if it is the neck I mean, or the throat), but not painful, a punch that has missed perhaps. Even so, it is surprise I register as much as alarm. But Rupert has become anxious at the same moment because the other youth is holding a cigarette far too close to his face. Rupert shouts and at the same moment we start to run back the way we have come.
Even at this point I feel surprise rather than alarm, but the scene plays and replays itself in my head, ragged, inexplicable and without sequence, and so unlike a film, though one searches every frame for a clue as to why it happened and how it might have been avoided.
There is no attempt to rob us, which would have been quite easy to do. Except now I wonder whether that was what they were saying when I said I didn’t understand. Still, ‘Hand over your wallet,’ isn’t hard to convey and I would have understood that. Or were they a gang and this bit of random promenade some special territory? Had there been a football match? Were we being punished for the skills of Gary Lineker?
As we run, I feel a heavy blow on the top of my head, the blow struck with a short length of steel scaffolding which Rupert sees the fair-haired youth pick up from the ground. Fortunately, the scaffolding doesn’t come instantly to hand, and he has to spend a vital second or so disengaging it, which, since I am already on the move, probably saves me from a more direct blow on my skull. Had it landed squarely, I must certainly have been stunned and fallen, and so probably received more, the usual procedure nowadays when someone falls to kick them in the head. As it is, I stagger with the blow but run on, and we are now so close to safety and the lights of the café that the two give up the chase.
Looked back on, the few seconds of the assault seem intensely private and solitary. I do not see the blow, feel no pain, just sheer bewilderment as to why this is being done to me. It is as if I am a little boy again, which is the last time I was in a fight, an element of recollection there, or reacquaintance: ah yes, now I remember! But I am not stunned in the least and retain enough sense of drama, as Rupert helps me towards the café, to note my blood falling in the dust around my feet, and to look forward to the looks of horror on the faces of the café clientele that must shortly greet the arrival in their midst of this bloodstained apparition as the pizza turns to ashes in their mouths.
Actually they seem rather less horrified than I’d expected, some of them just looking away in a very English fashion, so I have time to wonder if maybe this isn’t such an outlandish occurrence after all, and whether this establishment regularly welcomes blood-drenched casualties, staggering in from the promenade.
The proprietor of the café sits me down, while the cashier tries to staunch the blood, patting my head with paper napkins. There is so much blood that it seems to me (wrongly) that the wound must therefore be quite deep though I still feel nothing, and am not even dizzy. I am conscious of the blood, though, and apologetic about it: it splashes onto the café table and the café floor, the mosaic now littered with gory serviettes. I am conscious of it because this is 1992 and these days blood is no longer just blood, but can have dangerous overtones, hazardous propensities. So, sitting there, steadily, voluminously bleeding, though I am a victim, I can see I also constitute a threat.
I wait in the café for a while, looking, I see in the counter mirror, quite dreadful. My head is now a little tender but I’m not otherwise in pain.
A taxi arrives, the driver concerned and helpful and not at all fussed about the blood on his upholstery; he drives us to the Posto di Primo Intervento, the Pronto Soccorso, which is not a hospital but some sort of emergency clinic, staffed by a doctor and two nurses.
The nurse lies me down on the table and starts to cut away some of my hair, as the doctor inquires about the circumstances of the injury. He has no English, Rupert has no Italian, so, despite being prone on the table, and being shaved and swabbed by the nurse, I struggle to answer with what little Italian I have. The doctor meanwhile is filling in a form, and it is now that I say ruefully that tomorrow will be my birthday. There is no smile, no interest even, and he glumly makes preparations to stitch my head.
I am expecting some kind of anaesthetic but none is forthcoming. Perhaps one cannot anaesthetise the surface of the skull, or perhaps, I think, as he takes a grip of my head, the surface of the skull feels no pain. I am soon disabused of this and, as he puts in his first stitch and draws the flesh together, my feet drum helplessly on the table with the pain of it, so that the nurse lies across my legs as he prepares the second stitch.
I watch him, trying to think whom he reminds me of, and as he puts in the second stitch, and my feet start to bang, I realise that he is the young sheikh in John Huston’s Beat the Devil. He, too, is ruthless and unsmiling, and finding Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre and Robert Morley cast up on his shores, plans to have them all shot. Bogart, however, discovers the sheikh’s soft spot, a secret passion for Rita Hayworth, and saves their lives by promising the humourless young man an introduction to ‘the peerless Rita’ (the script was by Truman Capote).
If this equally humourless young doctor cherishes such showbiz longings I am not to know, as throughout his grisly embroidery he utters no word.
‘Nearly done’ or ‘Just one stitch more!’ would have helped, even in Italian. But nothing is said: there is just this cold-blooded, cold bloodied, morose medic, plying his impassive needle, remorselessly hemming my head.
Between the 12 stitches it eventually takes, I have time to wonder about his life.
I wonder if he has a young wife, a baby perhaps, and if he was already in bed when the telephone rang, though his impassive demeanour and neat collar and tie betray no sign of him having been summarily rooted out. It will be one of those cheerless Continental apartments where formica-topped tables stand on rug-less tiled floors, the sofa is protected by sheets of plastic and, in the unfrequented sitting-room, the green metal blinds are never raised.
Had his ambitions once aimed higher than a casualty clinic in a rundown seaside town? Is he already sinking into a routine of frustration and inanition, like a doctor out of Chekhov, a drink in the same dull bar every night, a walk with the pram on Sundays and a coarsening wife to whom he finds less and less to say? Was the nightly quota of split heads and unexciting contusions diminishing what he had once thought of as a noble or at least profitable vocation? Does he hanker after a larger arena in which to vent his unwinking disdain?
A serious boy, thought promising at school, does he regret not hanging about with his racier classmates, now dashing about on their Lambrettas, and playing pool in the café? As he threads his needle for what I pray will be the final stitch, it occurs to me that he has missed his time, this expressionless, never altogether young, young man. Fifty years ago in a similar room and under the same unshaded lights, he could have been found lifting the eyelid of some near insensible Partisan; the heart checked, he gives a professional nod and watches while the victim’s head is thrust back into the bucket.
He puts in the last stitch, my legs thrash for the last time as he neatly knots his thread; the nurse gets off my legs and the torture appears to be over.
Enter at this point a plump, middle-aged carabiniere, who is unshocked by the assault to the point of indifference, but with a touch of satisfaction that one more ingenuous member of the public now realises what the real world is like and the shit-heap it is that the police are toiling to clean up.
‘Who were these people? What did you do to them?’
‘Nothing,’ I say.
‘Well, they can’t have been Italians. Were they black?’ And to make sure I do not mistake his meaning, he draws a face on a pad and scribbles over it.
‘Were they Moroccans?’
‘I don’t know.’
The nurse cleans me up while medicine and the law confer.
‘I would not go to a country where I did not speak the language,’ says the doctor, confirming that Wilfred Thesiger he isn’t.
Now Rupert and the nurse help me up from the table and suddenly seeing us side by side, a solution to the crime presents itself to the policeman, a solution (the police being the same the world over) which hardly makes it a crime at all.
‘This one,’ he says, indicating me, ‘is much older than the other one.’
The opinion of the law is given medical endorsement when Doctor Death nods thoughtfully. They consult our passports and I am revealed as old enough to be Rupert’s father; perhaps they had hitherto thought I was his father – but not anymore.
Now there is no longer any mystery about this crime in either of their minds: strolling down to the seafront at eleven at night, this oddly matched couple have been up to no good; what this sorry-looking, middle-aged Englishman is not saying is that on that seedy promenade some advance had been made, a gesture even, and the honour of the Italian male impugned. The wound I have received is virtually self-inflicted, an entirely proper response to an insult to Italian manhood for which a blow on the skull with a length of steel scaffolding is perfectly appropriate. We had been cruising; it was our own fault.
That there was no truth in this assumption I hesitate to say again, as laying stress on one’s innocence seems to presuppose the opposite. This happened is the most that one can say: to get into why it happened, why it should not have happened, or how one did nothing to make it happen, implies that there is an alternative story that could be sketched out, the denial in itself conferring some authenticity on the alternative. I see now how women who have been attacked find themselves incriminated when they are asked to explain it, and how, in classic fashion, by simply recounting the circumstances of an assault, the victim becomes the culprit. In Kafka (about whom I had written) it is almost a commonplace, the lesson (and this is in Kafka too) now written on my own flesh.
Just by telling the story one loses the facts, shakes them out and makes them available for interpretation and rearrangement. Instinctively, in telling the story one guards against misinterpretation, but to lay stress on the innocence of one’s conduct is to imply that there have been other occasions, similar situations, dark nights with boys on seafronts where one’s behaviour might be more blameworthy. But this too was false in my case, so far from the truth it was almost comical.
I have never been able to cruise and have never had much inclination to do so, though seeing it as a definite shortcoming, one of several masculine accomplishments I have never been able to master – throwing a ball, for instance, catching the barman’s eye, pissing in public. It was partly that, never feeling I would be much of a catch, I saw no point in trawling the streets for someone who might feel differently. And then, too, I was quite hard to please.
Homosexual friends, I had noticed, never seemed all that choosy when they caught someone giving them the eye. Quick as a fish they were off on the trail of their quarry, a ritual of flight and pursuit that involved glances over the shoulder, looking in shop windows and hesitation at street corners, until when eventually one or other of the parties decided to close the gap and actually speak, it came as no surprise and was almost a joke.
It was a knack I did not have as well as a disinclination, and was reinforced by a fastidiousness that was disabling too. Friends invariably dramatised and romanticised such encounters, some of which must surely have been commonplace and many, though spiced up by the unexpected, downright dull. But what never ceased to astonish me (and fill me with a kind of wonder) was the persistent readiness for such casual flings and the rapidity with which, regardless of previous plans or engagements, they would, the opportunity unexpectedly presenting itself, dart away after some unknown man in response to a glance which, as often as not, I had not even spotted.
Some of these considerations I dramatised in the screen adaptation of Joe Orton’s biography, Prick Up Your Ears.
(Orton sees a youth coming)
Orton: Look at the package on this. He’s lovely.
Halliwell: (frantically) Where? Where?
Orton: Here. (The youth looks back) We’re on.
Halliwell: How? What did he do? I didn’t see anything.
Orton: What do you want, a telegram? Come on. (They follow) He’s built like a brick shithouse.
Halliwell: He’s probably a policeman.
Orton: I know. Isn’t it wonderful?
Halliwell: We don’t want it to make us late for the Proms.
Orton: Listen, sweetheart, which do you prefer, him or Sir Malcolm Sargent?
Halliwell’s wail of complaint is truly mine: my first consideration would always be Sir Malcolm Sargent, or whoever, until, that is, the moment passed when I would be left wretched at my own timidity.
Living life in Orton’s bold, head-on sort of way, which I was never able to do, seemed to me to have a morality of a sort. That all other fancies and preoccupations, the ties and tugs of social life, for instance, the need to keep appointments and the overriding obligations of work should, at the prospect of sex, be straightaway rendered provisional and be instantly dispensed with, might be thought, if not admirable, then at least praiseworthy; between keeping a promise and turning a trick no contest: it was a question of priorities.
It was as though life with all its engagements and obligations, its goals, duties and diversions was for these rovers but a path beside a fast-moving stream of sex into which they were ready to plunge, literally at the blink of an eye. Half a smile, a second look – that was all it seemed to take. This was certainly how I saw it, though strictly as an onlooker as, apart from anything else, I was never quick enough off the mark to be a participant.
Besides, while the readiness was all, there were other necessary components: it required a certain self-esteem, for a start, a notion of oneself as meriting some interest, sexual or otherwise, and this I lacked; I could not see I was worth a second glance, let alone worth pursuing. I did not like myself, so why should anybody else? Then, too, such encounters involved risk, of which a risk of rejection was not the least, a risk of being beaten up was another and, in our newly straitened circumstances, the risks attendant on any sex.
Such ease of encounter wasn’t to be attained or even struggled after. Like so much else in life it was bestowed, though not on me.
Pierre Loti said ‘I am not my type’ and so it was with me. The predicament, if it is a predicament, is not unusual and those who find themselves in it can console themselves that they are luckier in the long run than those who find their reflection a cause for congratulation. Take Peter Cook who, as a young man, always gazed at himself with both pleasure and interest, but for whom growing old must have been particularly depressing. Losing one’s looks means less to those who have no looks to lose. Or should, but this is not the whole truth of it, naturally, as there can be few mortals who are not vain of something: in my case it is of always having looked younger than my age owing to the inherited characteristic of having kept my hair, and my hair having kept its colour. So, too, did my father, on his deathbed at the age of 71, his hair still as full and brown as it had always been. That apart, though, I look at myself and reflect that the face is not worth stopping for, and so, until I was well into my thirties, few did.
This was partly self-fulfilling. Had I liked myself more (or thought about myself less) things might have been different, or different sooner. Though it’s the sort of reach-me-down psychology bandied about on afternoon TV shows, to like oneself more does, I see now, make one easier to like. I just wish I had come by the knowledge earlier in life.
Still, the walks I used to take every night around the streets of Headingley and Meanwood were, I suppose, cruising of a sort and I wonder now whether that was the construction my parents put on my suburban rovings. It was not sex but the beauty of the city that had me in thrall, which might seem eccentric, except that the Victorian painter Atkinson Grimshaw had found the same in the streets of Leeds, so I was in good company.
When I came home and filled my notebooks with descriptions of the sunset, treating it as if it were an ideal landscape and the clouds an alternative world, there was, I’m sure, a part of me that knew that the world I was really looking for and never found was darker and more furtive and not ideal at all.
But I was a romantic boy and though to cruise meant employing skills I never managed to acquire, I felt my failure to acquire them was a disappointment rather than a disability, more regrettable than not being able to roller-skate or dance, but not much more.
In such matters, though, I retained an innocence long after it could be seen as becoming, and a timidity inappropriate in someone of forty, so that on the rare occasions when I was unambiguously approached, I generally failed to divine the true nature of the encounter until it was too late. Asked by a perky young man for the time on the Tube platform, I pointed to the clock a few yards away and got on the train, only to see him still waiting on the platform, smiling – I would like to think wistfully. I got off at the next stop and caught the next train back, but he had, of course, gone.
Another similar exchange was more comic. I was walking in Regent’s Park when another stroller stopped and (with no sign of a cigarette) asked me for a light. I explained that I had no matches as I had not long stopped smoking, but caught as I stammered out this excuse a flicker of amused despair, presumably that someone could be so stupid. As I walked on, the true nature of the approach dawned on me and I stopped and called back: ‘But thank you very much for asking.’ There, too, I went back five minutes later but to no purpose.
Having a public face complicated things. Did one get looks? It was hard to sift one sort of interest from another, the searching look, the second glance, ascribable to having been seen on the screen rather than foreseen on the pillow.
These failed encounters, though, invariably depressed for days afterwards, not because of a sexual opportunity missed, but because they brought home to me my instinctive avoidance of risk. Risk was what I didn’t want (or did) so I avoided not merely the risk, but those areas where risk was likely to be encountered. To be bold was always my second thought, and always too late. With me, it’s not a case of having left undone the things I ought to have done; I’ve left undone those things I ought not to have done too.
I saw these fumbled passes as indictments of my own timidity; I had only to bring one off, I used to think, and my life would change its course. But I never managed it. So for this Italian policeman to assume that I had been attacked because I was doing something which had been persistently beyond my capacities to do, and which had defied all aspiration, seemed particularly unfair. If it was an offence, not only had I not committed it, but it was beyond my capabilities to commit.
‘But I’m shy,’ I should have protested, and that would have said it all. Or since making such an assertion on one’s own behalf itself demands a degree of boldness, so to say you are shy you need to be quite unshy, I should have left it to Rupert. Except that he was not unshy too, so that made two of us. I suppose we must have looked like two prep-school masters, an older one and his much younger colleague, and, though not quite Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, hardly a predatory pair.
Later, when we were back in England, I wondered too (this wondering and the quest for certainties the most persistent feature of the whole episode) if some of the now evident hostility of this policeman and this doctor had to do with my poor Italian. I had, throughout, described our attackers as ragazzi which I took to mean ‘young men’, or rather, ‘youths’. Did it mean that, I wondered, or did it mean boys who were much younger? Was I describing an assault such as occurs in Suddenly Last Summer when Sebastian is, Orpheus-like, torn to pieces by street urchins?
‘Youths’ was what I meant, with its connotations of aimlessness, indolence and being on the loose, the associations of the specific the opposite of those of the general: youth is freshness, vigour and vitality; a youth is indolent, dull and up to no good.
‘What did he look like?’
‘He looked like a youth.’
That was what I wanted to say, but had I said it? Did ragazzo mean that? I subsequently discovered that that was exactly what it did mean, and so I need not have concerned myself; need not have concerned myself in any case since whether the culprits were youths or boys plainly did not concern the carabiniere: I was the real culprit; to him they were just specimens of affronted Italian masculinity.
The rest of the story is soon told. The carabiniere took Rupert off on a half-hearted run round the town and seemed surprised that the youths were not still hanging about at the scene of the crime. He told us that if we wanted we could report to the police station the next day, but that there would not be much point.
In this sorry saga the real Samaritan was the taxi driver who had ferried us to the clinic in the first place, horn sounding, white handkerchief hung out of the window; maybe he just liked the excitement. But he waited while I was patched up, and was there to take us back to the hotel in the small hours. No matter that his car must have been covered in blood, he went off without being paid, and ironically, in view of the carabiniere’s eagerness to put the blame on blacks or Moroccans, he was an Egyptian.
Next day, we drove back to Fiumicino. Our plane tickets were invalid for immediate return so we spent £600 on new ones. Back in England, the travel insurance company, a large and reputable firm, refused to refund this fare on the grounds that we had not contacted them first for permission to return. So, unrobbed by our assailants, we ended up having our pockets picked by some respectable gentlemen in the City.
The wound had been covered in thick layers of elastoplast so we came back through Heathrow with me sporting this tipsy pink pill-box on the side of my head. I noted how invisible even a minor disability makes one, people preferring to look away, rather than suffer embarrassment or fellow-feeling.
I put my bloodstained clothes in the washer (with Pre-Wash and Water Plus), wondering if this was how murderers went about it. At the dry cleaners I had to explain the state of my sports coat. The Spanish assistant shrugged: ‘Then it’s the same there as it is here.’ But for days afterwards I kept coming across spots of blood on clothes I had not even been wearing and on my body, too. Several baths later, in a crack behind my ear, I found crystals of dried blood.
When, in due course, I took my head along to the local health centre, they were full of admiration for the neatness of the stitching on my cerebral sampler. Having yet again recounted the circumstances of the attack, I felt that, without saying so, and with the kindest of smiles, they, too, felt that the carabiniere’s interpretation came closest to the truth. I was past caring.
What remained for months afterwards was a thick welt across the crown of my head, like one of those mysterious marks that in SF movies single out those members of the human race who have been doctored by creatures from another planet.
While I still believe that a second blow, had it landed, would have killed me, I acknowledge that what happened on that shabby Italian seafront was no more than happens half a dozen times on a Saturday night in Glasgow or Leeds – or even Morecambe, another shabby seaside place which nowadays, I’m told, accounts for a disproportionate share of the personal injuries and assaults treated at one of our local hospitals. Bored youths are, I suppose, universal.
Never attacked or struck in anger since I was a child, I see my life as wrapped in almost Edwardian complacency. Even in New York, where one is primed to expect violence, I used to walk home in the 1980s through the empty streets of Tribeca at one or two in the morning and never came to harm. Before this I would no more have thought to cross the street to avoid the stumbling drunks who blunder at night around Camden Town, than I would think twice before crossing a field of cows. Whereas the other evening, as I was walking up Bond Street, someone shouted and I nearly jumped out of my skin. And yet there are Asians in our cities for whom the likelihood of such incidents must underscore their every day.
Years ago, my mother went into a mental hospital in Lancaster, suffering from depression, her first few days spent in an overcrowded admissions ward with beds only a couple of feet apart, filled with every species of mental disturbance. It was like Bedlam. Coming away from the hospital and walking through the streets of the town, I saw madness again and again. Having seen it plain in that terrible ward, I now saw variations of it in the faces of every other passerby. And so it was for a while after Ladispoli. ‘You could have done it,’ I would think of some innocent 18-year-old, ‘Why not you?’ – violence like madness, discernible in every other face. In time this passed but violent scenes on film or television still leave me impatient, injected very often into scripts out of the same vacuity with which, in real life, it is often inflicted – or was inflicted on me.
Least likely to be surprised by this account are unabashed homosexuals, or homosexuals who are less abashed than I am, and not so much in two minds, and whose dress and demeanour leave no doubt as to their preferences. To be attacked, beaten up or otherwise abused, and to find the police response one of indifference, is the not infrequent experience of homosexuals, and blacks too. But, reluctant to be enrolled in the ranks of gay martyrdom, reluctant, if the truth be told, to be enrolled in any ranks whatsoever, I kept quiet about this adventure. It has been another untold story, though it is better that it should be told. The police protect the respectable, of which I have always been one. So, to find ourselves in this grubby seaside town briefly and mistakenly cast out from respectability a while, and put outside the protection of the law, was, I hope, a salutary experience, though not one I would recommend.
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