"That was supposed to be just another ordinary day." It would be typical from my father, if he might not remember what year it was. I needed not ask, for I knew it perfectly well -- 1988. I was thirteen years old. "But it became a memorable morning in my life." I couldn't agree more, as Carlo began reminiscing.
"I was feeling lazy, and I did not want to leave the house. But I had so many errands to do in town... go to the post, pay bills, shop for groceries... I usually got bored doing them, and talking to people did not entice me much. But I did enjoy driving my sports car around, and those ordinary things were actually the only justification I had to go out. Otherwise, I'd rather stay in my studio, painting all day long. Sometimes, I wish I were back at my hermitage... the abandoned factory in Paris." Carlo smiled tenderly. As if approaching the past with great care, he spoke very slowly.
He sat at the edge of the sofa, though, and I could see he was not comfortable within himself, and the memories he was about to evoke. The Dark Room was also getting warmer, from our prolonged permanence in it without air conditioning. In other circumstances I might have worried about my paintings, but at that moment, I just hoped Carlo didn't suffer from low blood pressure or something. He looked old, but also healthy, and determined to finally share with me about the day he had left home.
"I was in the shower," Carlo recalled, "when the phone started ringing insistently. Worried it might be something important or urgent, I ran downstairs and picked the receiver, if just to silence it."
"Carlo! Get out of the house! NOW!" Catherine sounded very agitated.
"What's happened, Catherine?" I could sense her urgency, and I immediately knew the dreaded moment had arrived.
"They are coming after you!" She was screaming, and I could hear her high heels hitting the pavement on the other side of the line. Catherine must be walking very fast, almost running, as if she was the one being chased. "An order for arrest and imprisonment has been issued against you! They might be on their way, already. You have to leave! NOW!"
I gasped. "Arrested, Carlo?" After I spoke, I had to dry my mouth with the back of my hand, because like a child I had drooled. "What for?" It was surprising and confusing. I hadn't expected anything like that. And I could not imagine my father revealing that, after all, he was a drug dealer, or a mafioso. Nor that he had murdered someone. He probably just didn't have a valid passport or something like that.
"Tax defrauding." My father spoke so low that I felt like approaching him, going to sit by his side on the sofa. But I could not move, afraid of the abyss that still opened its gargantuan mouth between us. "From the very first time, when I had sent the paintings over to Davez in London, I had failed to declare and pay taxes. I confess that, having been so poor, and a simpleton like your mother liked to point out, I did not even cogitate about things like that. And for our remaining two years in Punaouilo, after Davez launched my career, and then in France, when I got frequent commissions, I continued doing it, since no one had never pointed any problem. I sent my paintings overseas, I received the money -- and to me, that was that."
"When we were in the Apennines, Laurent, visiting Tarso in our ancestral farm, two officers visited Catherine at home. They said they had tried to contact me many times -- but I never got any notification, because I still held Punaouilo as my official address. With the passing of years, the amount I owed to the Tax Authorities had become quite astonishing. Since in the records I had always avoided court, I was not plainly under investigation any longer -- I was to receive exemplary punishment, in an attempt to frighten other offenders."
"Catherine made friends," That's how Carlo would commonly refer to Catherine's lovers, "with one of the officers, and thus the investigation slowed down a little bit. And prolonged, since it was in the young man's interest to have free and justifiable access to our house, as often as possible. Not to investigate anything, of course. The man had been married, and a formal alibi was much appreciated. But because I was a foreigner, my case turned into an international affair and was taken to a different office, where Catherine's friend could not get hold of things anymore."
"That one morning, the 'friendly' officer had learned I was going to be arrested. He phoned Catherine, and she phoned me. I left the house with just my passport and a bag of dirty clothes I had planed to leave at the laundry that afternoon. For hours and hours I drove straight away to the Northern coast, where I crossed to England."
"Italy was closer but I had legal problems there, too, with my Army duties. I had suddenly become a criminal in both countries where I had lived." Carlo sighed, and examined the bruise in his hand, the spot where he had applied a burning frame on his own skin. "And for the second time I saw myself leaving France by sea, with very few belongings. Though, that second time, a car was considerably more valuable than my easel, some 15 years ago."
"I did not think of leaving you a note, Laurent, because I did not have time for considerations. Might I have pondered, it ought have been better to go to jail for one or two nights, maybe a couple of months even, but to have stayed in France to try to solve the problem. But that possibility had been discussed with Catherine, and she did not want to suffer the humiliation of seeing me in jail, she said. She thought you did not deserve it, either, and I had to agree with her."
"How did that happen, Carlo?" I was perplexed. "Why all of a sudden? Did this friend of Catherine denounce you? Or was it... herself?"
"No! Your mother tried to help me!" It seemed odd that Carlo was always so vehemently defending Catherine. "But someone else might--"
"Who?" I blurted. Though I was actually thinking how Catherine must have helped herself on the young officer, too. It was an interesting diversion for her, who had always preferred artists as lovers -- with the exception of Edoardo, her longest love relationship, who had been a cuoco, an Italian chef.
"Something else, much more wicked, had happenned to me in Punaouilo, Laurent. Remember I told you Danny Douxis, the island's only art dealer, never sold any of my works? I mean, what are just three paintings in almost eight years?! And how he got mad when I had sold them directly to Davez?" Carlo took a deep breath, and catapulted us to the Pacific Ocean. "Will, Joanna's husband, or uncle Will as you'd call him, had already alerted me. We were good mates, and we used to go in the sauna together, almost daily when the owners and guests were not occupying the mansion. His brother worked at Danny's house. I had been curious on who had bought two of my paintings at once... I believe it was in 1978 or 79..." Carlo counted his fingers, like a little boy, and that gesture melted my heart, "...and I know I should remember the date of such an extraordinary event in my otherwise meager career... but when I questioned Danny, he just dismissed me, saying the buyer had demanded secrecy. Well, Will's brother had seen a couple of my paintings at Danny's house... to find out, the next day, the dealer had burned them."
"Burned them!" I gulped, and finally moved closer to my father. I felt like embracing his legs, placing my head on his knees, wishing him to lovingly caress my hair -- like he never had. "Why would he do that?" I didn't remember Douxis, nor ever visiting his gallery in Punaouilo. So much had been kept hidden from me.
"It's inconceivable, right? When Will told me, I had to doubt him, and I guess he was hurt. But when, a couple of years later, another single painting was sold, what I regarded as my best work yet, I asked Will's brother to investigate its destination for me. And he said the painting had never gone elsewhere but Danny Douxis' house... and into his fireplace. Of course I could not confront Danny, because that could have harmed the job of Will's brother. It took me many years to realize the signification of those events. Since I never believed that story, I had almost already forgotten it. Until one day, in London, I met a gentleman who had been to Danny's gallery, while we still lived on the island. And his words were shocking!"
"Unfortunately, I did not buy your painting in Punaouilo, young man. It would certainly have been a good deal. But the dealer disavowed your work, saying it was plain bad, amateurish even, and he would not let me buy it. I insisted, since I thought it a pretty good piece, and wanted to nevertheless acquire it. But the dealer was determined not to sell. An art dealer who doesn't care about money, nor selling the artists he represents? Rather wicked, I thought, but what could I do? I hope Darius is treating you better, here in London. Yes, I'm sure he is, from the prices he is charging for your works!" And the British gentleman, patting me on the shoulder, had laughed to his tropical holidays best anecdote, while I, being at the center of it, was petrified.
"So I asked for Davez' help. A friend of his, who was an investigator, discovered that, during all those years, Danny Douxis had received sums of money from an account in Switzerland. It could be for any reason, but we believe that Danny was being paid not to sell my paintings." Carlo studied my face to watch my reaction. "He was receiving a salary to boycott me, do you understand it now, Laurent?"
"Mon Dieu..." And, exploding like a flash in my brain, I saw Celeste's astute, white smile full of small teeth in a frame of dark red colored lips. A smile that had fascinated, intrigued and terrorized me, remaining my strongest memory of her. "Was it... my grandmother?"
"Congratulations, Laurent!" Carlo exclaimed, raising his eyebrows, truly haunted. "I confess that I was so very surprised when I found it out... but you don't seem to be. The money was coming from a joint account under the names of Monsieur de Montbelle and Celeste, but that was mainly used by her." Carlo sighed. His burnt hand was hanging limp between his thighs, and I had to refrain from the impulse of kissing it. I had the impression Carlo was a hero, for having survived the joint forces of the Mortinné and the De Montbelle families. "In the last year of his life, Monsieur was senile and could not have made remittances, which leads us to be almost sure that Celeste was the one responsible from them... During all those years, she refused to send money to us in Punaouilo, claiming it was too expensive and complicated. But she had regularly wired it to Danny's account. With the purpose that he did not sell and eventually destroyed my paintings..."
"God! Have you ever told this to Catherine?" The whole scheme was so cunning. I was not surprised that Celeste had ensued it, in order to keep Catherine away from France. Or maybe it had been Monsieur de Montbelle, ultimately imposing his vengeance on my father. Whichever way, it seemed monstrous that we had been kept in a state close to poverty, and my father's talents deliberately downrated, his works being destroyed, to prolong our exile.
"When I found it all out, in London, I finally understood why my paintings were never properly displayed in Douxi's art gallery. But at the time of my discovery, Celeste was already in the early states of demency, and there was no reason to try to confront her. I have actually never met her... you know that, don't you, Laurent? Furthermore, Catherine might have not believed me, despite all the evidence. And above all, I did not want to further indispose Catherine with her mother."
My mind was racing, and I tried to encourage my father's confession. "And do you think it might have been Celeste to report you to the Tax Authorities?" I hadn't known much about my grandmother -- she had always kept us at a distance --, but the impression I had of her did match such slyness.
"I don't know, Laurent." Carlo was not defending Celeste like he would if it were Catherine. But he wasn't accusing her, either. My father seemed incapable of attacking anyone. "Perhaps the process had been running its normal course. And after many years, they just decided to finally act. Maybe it was simple like that, and then it was solely my fault for having been so negligent... And of course, with my escape to England, it looked like I had in fact acted based on ill will."
"And why couldn't you return to France, Carlo?" It was hard to believe that the Tax Authorities and the Police Judiciaire could have separated my father from me for so long. Could a laughable comedy of errors have lasted two decades?
"This was the reason for my sudden flight. But there was something else, that had also been happening for a few years already. In fact, since you and I had arrived in France. You may not remember a gypsy girl who worked at our home for a few months, Jaella... Catherine turned her down, accusing her of stealing some clothes and bijoux."
"I needddy the woerrrrrrrk, madamey!" The girl had cried and begged on her dismissal. aAnd since it had ho effect on Catherine, she was very angry when she had finally gone away.
We had known the girl was pregnant, but Catherine didn't care the least. So I decided to help her. I kept giving her money, even after she had had a son. A lovely baby boy that she named Jair. I thought she was a good girl, but since Catherine disliked her, Jaella only came to our house to receive the money when you and your mother were not at home.
"Merrrrrrrrrrci beaucouuuuup Carrrrrrrrlu!" The years passed, but her French remained quite simple, and her accent was lovingly musical.
During the weeks you and I were in Italy, Laurent, Jaella reappeared at our house. I had thoroughly forgotten about her, on account of the preparations for our trip. The girl used to call ahead and talk to me to set the day and hour when she could go to my studio. But for the first time she was unable to reach me for several days, and badly needing the money, she decided to show up unannounced. Perhaps fearing that I was trying to dodge her.
"Jaella met Catherine, who thought she had returned to rob us. Catherine ran inside the house to call the police, and Jaella ran after her. With the frightened child in her arms, the girl tried to explain that she had come to receive the money I gave her regularly. What a scene it must have been! And then Catherine -- not simply your mother but mainly the best-seller author --, let her imagination fly and foresaw I could be Jair's father... And when confronted, perhaps guessing this was the greatest idea that she had never had, Jaella decided to confirm the child was mine. Catherine was enraged when she phoned me in the Apennines, accusing me of having a second family. You may remember the serious and tense conversations I had with Tarso during those days, Laurent. A lot was about the threat of losing part of our lands to the National Park, but also on this supposed son I had... Unfortunately, Tarso, just like Catherine, doubted me."
"Do I have a half brother, Carlo?" I almost laughed at the irony of those news. It would not be as tragic as it would be funny. Catherine had a half brother, and throughout life, according to my father, my mother had suffered from feeling relegated as Monsieur de Montbelle's second family. Had my turn arrived? "Did you leave us for that other family, Carlo?"