The One Rule of Magic – sample chapter
Believing his daughter to be dead Lothar Schoenhofer has thrown out his collection of film memorabilia. Frieda, who isn’t dead, hears about the collection’s disposal and in a Europe-wide search tracks down one of the items in Turin: a set of overalls from The Italian Job.
Grand houses, the semi-palatial homes of the semi-aristocratic, always inspired and impressed me. And in some respects made me giggle, the way they stretched out from either side of their entrances without ever quite achieving the width of real palaces owned by real aristocrats. I stood outside one now, a multi-windowed Baroque monument to one family’s accumulated wealth; wealth that wasn’t quite enough to build the wings as wide as Versailles or the Herrenchiemsee or the Schonbrunn in Vienna. So close and yet so far.
The villa also reminded me that Turin was one hundred kilometres from Lake Maggiore. . . . My visit here would be brief. (I know I said that about Prague, but this time I meant it.) Natasha’s features followed me everywhere and I was daydreaming about her when the door to Villa Sbarriota opened and a young housekeeper stared out at me.
“Hi, my name’s Frieda Schoenhofer and I would like to speak to Signore Sbarriota.”
“How did you get in here?”
“I flew.” I think the joke was lost in translation, but the truth was even more absurd.
The housekeeper struggled for an answer. “You can’t have flown in here. Who are you?”
“I just said. Frieda Schoenhofer. I’ve travelled from Germany to meet Signore Sbariotta. He has something he wants to sell me.”
“Wait there.” She slammed the door in my face.
Tall ground floor windows grew out from behind short laurel hedges around the base of the villa walls. To one side of the entrance I noticed a room and a man dressing. He was in a hurry to pull on a black jacket and fasten a black tie. The housekeeper entered the room and spread confusion into the preparations of the man I assumed to be Sbariotta. He turned to the window. I smiled and waved at him.
When the front door wrenched open Sbariotta stood in front of me, out of breath and still struggling to achieve a satisfactory knot in his tie. “Who d’you say you were?”
“Never heard of you. Who are you?”
“Yes, yes, I know your name, you told me that.”
“But that’s who I am. I don’t have any other names.”
“What are you doing here, signora? And how did you get in. The gates are locked.”
“No, they’re not.”
“Aren’t they?” He peered across the formal garden in front of the Villa lit by concealed lights and smelling of jasmine. The only presence was his car, a solitary intruder in a soft landscape tickled and teased by jets of water from birds carved out of granite.
“Where’s your car?”
“You told Olivia you flew.”
“Olivia shouldn’t believe everything she’s told.”
“Get out.” And he slammed the door in my face. I knocked again. He opened it.
“I’ve come to buy the overalls.”
“From The Italian Job. You bought them off Norbert Spinoza in Germany. They were part of my father’s collection and I want to buy them back.”
“They’re not for sale.”
“Everything is for sale if the right price can be agreed.”
Sbariotta shuffled about on the top step of the entrance, huffing and puffing, unable to decide if he was staying in or coming out. He called for Olivia who was stood right behind him. “My tie. . . .” She fiddled with the knot and adjusted the collar. Satisfied he was decent he came down the steps and approached his car. “I don’t know what time I’ll be back, Olivia.” His alarm bleeped and the car doors clicked open. “What d’you say your name was again?”
“German?” He paused before getting into the car and studied me. “I suppose you’re already dressed appropriately. At least in colour. You’ll have to come with me if you want to talk.”
I joined him in his car and he zoomed off down a long avenue of pleached lime trees and out of the gates swinging open as he approached. “Where were you going, signore. . . .”
“Michaeli. Don’t bother with all that formal stuff. I’m going to a funeral.”
“Funeral? At this time of the evening?”
“They’re not burying him. That was this morning. No, the funeral party is this evening. Been going on all day, but I had to come back. See to some business affairs, meet some people.”
“Wash your overalls.”
“How much do you want for them? You can name the price.”
He patted the dashboard of the car. “I’ve always liked Jaguar. British engineering. Italian cars are fine if you like repairing things, but a good British sports car is hard to beat.”
“Is that why you bought the overalls?”
“Partly. Great film. Not sure about Michael Caine getting one over on the Italian police, but . . . Do you know the Mini was designed by an Italian?”
“Doesn’t sound Italian.”
I didn’t trust him. My phone told me Alec Issigonis was Greek. When Sbariotta finished his speech on British engineering I said, “Born in Smyrna. Originally a Greek port, but now part of Turkey.”
“Well aren’t you the killjoy. Anyway, it makes no difference. Italian, Greek, Turkish. We’re all European now. The overalls are not for sale.”
“Not even for a silly amount of money?”
“I don’t need the money. . . .” He struggled to remember my name.
“Frieda. I’ll have the bragging rights. The last laugh. Most of my friends were in Turin when they filmed The Italian Job. They were used as extras and I missed out. But they don’t have what I have. And before you make a silly offer, I don’t need the money. And besides,” he studied me again, “I’m not sure you could afford to make a silly offer.”
The phrase wasn’t arbitrary. Silly offers had been a running joke in my family since the day I came home from school when I was seven years old and found my parents looking at the details of a large house three or four times bigger than our own. They told me they were planning to buy it, which surprised me because the coat I was wearing had been bought second hand a couple of months before.
And yet there they were checking out a house with five bedrooms (we only needed two), with stabling and paddocks (we didn’t have any pets), and garaging for four cars (my father was the only one with a car; an eight year old Volkswagen). They didn’t tell me where the money came from, but I learned a year later that my father had developed a financial investment scheme with virtually unlimited profits; all he needed were enough greedy mugs to fall for it. He used his experience as a lawyer to keep everything legal and his experiences of being ripped off by rich clients to suppress any sense of guilt or ethical responsibility. At the same time, I also learned of my mother’s indifference to what my father did.
They placed a bid for the house, but it was turned down, so without any hint of irony my father laughed and said to my mother ‘we can afford to make them a silly offer. No one ever turned down a silly offer.’ And the sillier the offer, the more effective it was in securing a sale.
My father was correct. Sbariotta was wrong. In spite of his house and his Jaguar and his newly acquired bragging rights he would be swayed by a silly offer? He just didn’t know it yet.
“Was the deceased a friend of yours?” I said.
Sbariotta contained his emotion, gulped and rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
He squinted and shook his head. When he cried he sounded asthmatic. A hand on his shoulder, in my limited experience of comforting people, would have made the situation worse. Grief’s many manifestations had always fascinated me, from wailing hysterics to morbid depression. When I followed my parents round the house they displayed a new expression of grief: denial. A refusal to acknowledge reality and continue daily life as if they were in a play, a badly scripted and badly directed play, so bad the audience had walked out.
We arrived at the location of the funeral party and a sense of deja vu overcame me. The villa was identical to Sbariotta’s, as if he had driven round the Italian countryside for fifteen minutes before taking a different route home. The grounds were full of cars, some of them British (Sbariotta parked next to a Bentley), and the villa house lights shone down on a very well attended gathering.
“Your friend must have been very popular,” I said. Sbariotta filled up again and jumped out of the car.
“Frieda, may I request that you are discreet this evening? I understand you want to know about things, but please try not to ask any questions.”
Sbariotta laughed and then abruptly stopped himself. “I’m sorry. The circumstances are very difficult.”
“You thought I was dressed appropriately for a funeral? Thank you.”
We walked into a boisterous reception, quite jolly in some parts. I had never been to an Italian funeral and wondered if the convention was to celebrate the life rather than mourn the death. But even in this context some of the shrieks of laughter seemed inappropriate.
“Michaeli, welcome back.” A silver haired man with a bone structure as sharp as the black handkerchief sticking out of his top pocket grabbed Sbariotta and vigorously kissed him on both cheeks. “So this is why you went home.” He held my hand and kissed the back of my fingers. “Signora.” I felt conspicuous in my black leather jacket and black jeans, appropriately dressed as Sbariotta mentioned, being kissed on the back of the fingers. . . .
“Your name, signora?”
“Frieda. . . .”
“Frieda. That sounds ravishingly Germanic.”
“It does, doesn’t it? Heaven knows why my parents chose it.”
“So, you’re not German?”
“Oh, yes, I’m German, but my friends always thought the name was quite old fashioned. Some names can be quite embarrassing. . . .” Sbariotta turned away. His shoulders wobbled and I could see the emotion overtaking him again. The silver haired man choked and left us in the hallway. “What did I say?”
“Nothing.” Sbariotta took out his handkerchief to dry his eyes. “Don’t worry about it.”
For the next hour or so, Sbariotta mingled, exchanged small talk and navigated a variety of subjects, none of which made any reference to the deceased. My curiosity began to boil and I became desperate to know who the mystery corpse might be: someone famous being buried in secret; someone important being buried in disgrace? The effort needed to hold my tongue was too great so I asked for the bathroom.
At last an opportunity to eavesdrop. I left the bathroom unseen and mixed with the mourners without them knowing I was there. (The occasional shiver gave away my presence, but everyone shivers at funerals and wakes.) The mourners talked about Greece, about olive crops, about Pavarotti and people booing at Covent Garden. They talked about money, about having too much and having too little. They rubbished their relatives and praised their grandchildren. One old boy achieved a great deal of merriment with an anecdote about Mussolini, and another old boy killed a conversation dead when he told a middle aged woman how beautiful her mother looked after plastic surgery.
One of the guests, a nervous man with hunched shoulders, gripped a brandy glass with both hands and avoided contact with everyone around him. He looked through me, took a sly sip of his drink and crept away from the gathering. I followed him out onto a terrace at the back of the house where he pulled up when he saw a small group of people standing around a large telescope. A man was explaining to several children how to find the Pleiades low in the sky and then, shifting the elevation of the telescope, began to explain the various areas of the moon.
“Why is the moon red, signore?” said a girl with a long pony tail.
“That is a blood moon,” the man said pressing his eye against the viewfinder.
The mystery man with the brandy glass studied the moon, the gathering and glanced back into the house where the jollity rolled and bubbled like some tectonic magma about to spew out through the patio windows. He emptied his glass and returned to the noise.
Around the telescope the children gathered and one by one took their place at the viewfinder to stare at the blood moon. The temptation to produce some phantasmic visual treat for them was too hard to resist. A boy pointed at the sky. “The man in the Moon!”
The children squealed when the blood red features of the Moon smiled the gentlest hint of a smile. They rushed into the house, leaving the solitary adult to wait for the trick to explain itself. He looked through the viewfinder, checked again with his own eyes, back to the viewfinder and finally surrendered and followed the children. I was about to go with them, but the sneaky man with the empty brandy glass had been hiding behind a curtain. He crept onto the terrace and adjusted the angle of the telescope, pointing it across the dark trough of the valley to a solitary distant light.
The children bounded back into view, trailed by several impatient grown ups who dismissed the lunar fantasies, and disturbed the brandy glass man who jumped and almost knocked the telescope off its tripod.
“It was a face,” the girl insisted.
“And it was smiling, look.” The boy pointed again and distracted the adults who ignored the brandy glass man struggling to repoint the telescope at the sky. He gave up, offered a weak smile to the adults and took himself back into the villa to top up his drink.
Other than the dominant black clothes, there was no indication of a death, of grieving, of sorrow or regret. Death was an absentee. Whoever had died must have been a comedian in life. I noticed Sbariotta whisper and nod to the brandy glass man and then continue to look around the crowd, searching for me. He asked a woman, “Have you seen a young German girl, leather jacket, jeans, plain looking girl with jet black hair?”
He pushed through the various groups asking the same question and describing me in the same words until I was sick of hearing them. I ducked under the stairs and reappeared from the other side without drawing any suspicion. Sbariotta found me. “Frieda. I’ve arranged an extra place at dinner for you.”
“That’s very kind of you. . . .”
“Hopefully they won’t sit you on a stool or a crate of oranges.”
“Signore Sbariotta, can I make an offer for the overalls? Will you accept fifty thousand euros?”
“No. I told you, it’s not the money.”
“One hundred thousand.”
“No. . . . ”
“Two hundred thousand. . . .”
He laughed. “Signora, stop. They’re not for sale.” And with his final word he took my arm and followed the progression into the dining room.
I whispered to him, “If you don’t sell me the overalls I’ll start asking people who has died.”
Sbariotta snorted and shook with hysterics. But he wasn’t crying he was laughing, and within thirty seconds everyone around us laughed with him; tear-inducing laughter, body shaking guffaws and belly laughs, the whole collection of guests, young and old, male and female, bawling with uncontrollable laughter and me in the middle, stony faced and unaffected by the joke.