I think the most successful sections of my autobiography, My Name is Daphne Fairfax were those featuring my father – the letter of praise for Daphne I most cherished ended, “and thank you, above all, for introducing me to Syd.”
At the age of 70, prompted by my brother Richard, Syd spent several months writing his ‘memoirs’ (he laughed at the pretentiousness of the word) in his careful, copperplate writing. The prose is spare, occasionally ungrammatical and avoids introspection or rhetorical flourish, but you can feel the underlying turbulences
There are tales in Syd’s reminiscences, especially those from his war years, which, though narrated in a few sentences or a couple of sparse paragraphs, have a kind of epic quality, stories whose details and emotions I have tried to construct in my own mind. Of these, perhaps the most affecting comes when he is still a soldier, though now in the post-war turmoil of Yugoslavia:
To my delight, I was granted a week’s leave in Venice. I went with a tough, North country lad whose main interest was booze, but I wasn’t to spend any time with him. We were accommodated in the best hotel in Venice, called the Excelsior, which stood on the Lido. It was luxurious but I wasn’t to take much advantage of it.
Gosh, why not? I am hooked. Surely, after all those cramped shared quarters, filthy desert toilets, foreign prisons and army camps, he was exhilarated at the prospect of clean sheets, warm baths and uxorious service? It will be 30 years before he ever stays anywhere as grand as the Excelsior.
It had its own sandy beach and once I’d settled in I went for a swim. The water was beautifully warm. I swam out and climbed up onto a small jetty in order to have a dive. Laying sunning herself there was a girl in a white bikini, and she was to be the reason that I spent so little time in the hotel.
Ah hah, I see…. The bikini, then a fashionable and daring new garment in the wardrobe of young women, was named – obscenely you might say – after the Pacific Island that had been nuked in the recent atomic tests, and this particular white two piece, and more particularly the eager tanned body that filled it, were naturally of more interest to Syd than any bedding, however sumptuous…
As I recall, I think her name was Santa Maria Della Costello but I think that is the name of a Church. Anyway, I called her Maria. She told me that she had lost both of her parents in a bombing raid in Milan. She showed me all the delights of Venice: St Mark’s Cathedral, the marble-paved Piazza San Marco, The Bridge of Sighs, the island of Torcello, where women were sewing Venetian lace, which we went to on a gondola.
Although her English was non-existent and my Italian was about the same we managed to communicate remarkably well and we were both sorry when my week ran out. On departure I offered her money, but she refused the offer. I think I insulted her because she thought I was paying for her services. She later tried to get to see me in Pola but was stopped at the border crossing. I never saw her again.
However many stories end with it (perhaps in some way because they all do), ‘I never saw her again’, is a phrase that is always loaded with poignancy. Forty years after his Venetian encounter I rang Syd from the beach opposite the Excelsior Hotel and claimed I could see an old lady in a white bikini. He laughed but I knew he had always wondered what had become of that sad woman, poor beautiful desperate Maria, newly orphaned and homeless, hopelessly trying to bluff her way past the guards, praying she might be rescued from her despair again by the handsome, kind, sexy, English soldier…
I never saw her again.