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Authors: Trezza Azzopardi

The Hiding Place

BOOK: The Hiding Place
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trezza azzopardi

the hiding place

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Contents

Part One

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Part Two

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

Sixteen

Seventeen

Eighteen

Nineteen

 
part one
 

waiting

Despite the fact that Carol Jackson has to sit in a pram, she and her mother are going out together, while mine is downstairs whispering with a perfumed woman in an animal
skin.

I watch as the pram disappears round the edge of the street. Mrs Jackson’s stick legs and slippers are the last bits to vanish, but if I move my face further left into the crack of the
window, I might still see them. I don’t do this. I lick the glass I’ve frosted with my breath, to get a clear view up the hill to the betting shop, and wait for my father, like
I’m told.

When my mother’s friend Eva slipped in through the back door, I expected her to stay put. But she followed us up the stairs. She stood on the landing in her ocelot coat, with one hand
closed upon the other. My mother stationed me at the glass.

Do three Our Fathers, and if you can’t see him by then, come down, she said. Eva laughed. Her body bent forward and she flipped the air with a glove she’d fingered off in the
doorway.

Are you sure it’s alright, Mary? she asked, rapping across the floorboards in her heels.

He’ll be ages yet, said my mother, moving her away from the mattresses and the faint smell of urine, and taking her back down the stairs.

My father doesn’t like it when Eva comes round. He says she drinks too much. My mother says Eva’s the only friend she’s got left. When my father goes to the betting office,
they sit downstairs and talk, and both of them drink too much. Sometimes I can hear them laughing. But when Eva came up to my room I panicked, because there’s really no more space for anyone
else in this house.

~

This is my bedroom, and Luca’s, and Fran’s, and my mother’s. The four of us sleep here, and at the back of the house live Celesta and Rose, my other two
sisters who I don’t really know. They have pinned a notice on the door which I can’t read but which I know says,
KEEP OUT. THIS MEANS
YOU! I think it means me. I
imagine they’re serious.

We are Celesta, Rosaria, Francesca, Luca, Dolores. I’m the last, and like Rose and Fran I am shortened in my name: I am Dol. This is so my mother can get us all down for breakfast in one
breath. There is one more of us, Marina, who comes after Celesta, but she’s not here any more, which is just as well, because how would she fit in?

My father has the last bedroom. It’s called the Box Room, but it has no boxes in it, at least none that I can see. It’s always open, as if he’s saying he doesn’t really
live there, or is pinched by the size of it, or wants us to know he’s still alive at night by letting us hear him snore. I never go in there by choice, but sometimes I stand at the door.

My bedroom is full of beds. It’s practically a ward. There’s also an old fold-up, which has lost the ability to do what it suggests. It lounges on its side against the far wall, as
if it’s waiting for another child to fill it. I share the big bed with my mother and my sister Luca. We lie on either side of her in our winceyette pyjamas, like two brackets stuck with
fluff. I never consider that this might be my father’s place.

Fran sleeps on a slim divan in the corner. It’s not because she doesn’t want to sleep with us, but because she always wets the bed. I do too, sometimes, and so does Luca. It’s
easy to tell who’s to blame; the mattress is patterned with flowers, and stains. My mother doesn’t understand why we do it, children of three, six, eight, and we can’t
explain.

Our Father, who art in Heaven . . . I’ve done two as far as I know, which is only up to Daily Bread, so I stop and watch. I think I see his shadow on the hill, but as the shape trots down
I laugh because it’s just a dog.

There’s only space for one more thing in here, and that’s the chest, which is also a bed of sorts. My mother keeps her old handbag in it, busting with photographs of lots of people I
don’t know. They’re always getting married and standing on a step, so the two are linked forever in my head. There are others, too, of me and all the rest, black and white, cracked and
creased, sliding on each other inside the dim nylon pouch, inside the handbag, inside the chest.

I slept in the chest, when I was newborn. My mother told me how she wrapped me in a shawl at night and hid me from my father.

He would’ve smothered you, she said, without malice but with a strange sense of pride, as if I were a Rescue kitten she had taken in.

I think about the little baby in the chest, and my father, creeping into the bedroom like a pantomime giant. He’s lifting his legs very high, placing one shiny hobnail boot slowly in front
of the other. He has a pillow concertinaed in his hands; he’s sniffing the air for signs.

But wouldn’t he have heard me? I say, and my mother smiles.

Not when I shut the lid. You didn’t make a peep.

~

My mother’s laugh below and the chink of a bottle reminds me I am on lookout. He’s loping down the street, almost home, and I run to whisper in my mother’s
ear. Eva drags her coat off the chair, pockets the bottle of rum, and moves to the back door. She lifts the latch and lets herself out. The air is frosty. My mother breaks off some blackened
parsley from a pot next to the step, and folds it into her mouth.

Go upstairs now, Dol, and do your puzzle, she says. I must keep out of my father’s way.

~  ~  ~

That was a time before I was four. The house is still here, and now I am here, standing at the window of the bedroom we shared. A veil of grime is drawn across the sill. My
mother would never have allowed it.

The Jacksons have long gone, moved to a new estate called Pentwyn Farm. It says so on the front of the bus which takes you there. Their house is empty now: one top window is boarded up, the
other gapes; a smash of black glass juts from the frame like a broken bone. A stone’s throw. The other houses in the row are nailed with identical sheets of gunmetal grey, decorated with
ribbons of graffiti red. There are a few people left on the street, but I don’t know any of them. There are no cars at the kerb.

I’m standing at my window, and I’m the last. All the rest have gone. All the sisters have gone. I’m waiting for them to stage their comeback.

 
one

Six-to-four the field, six-to-one bar!

Shouting the odds, the TV and my father, low down on the living room floor.

C’mon, baby! he yells, beating his flank with his fist. With the betting slip in his teeth, he gallops down the last furlong of the rug, to the home straight of the lino. Words bolt from
the side of his mouth: Yankee Piggott Photo-finish. I don’t understand any of it: I think my father’s English leaves a lot to be desired.

He curses: Jesus Christ.

At the end of the race, his face is very flushed, an inch from the set. He’s watching the lines and dots as if Barney’s Boy will suddenly leap through the screen. Ripping pink shreds
of paper from his mouth, my father tears up his slip and spits the remains on the rug. Then he starts in on the
Sporting Life
, holding it out in front of him, rending it between his fists
until he’s tearing air. I know at these moments that he would tear me too, for the slightest thing, and I crawl ever so slowly behind the couch, until he’s put on his donkey jacket and
slammed the back door.

He isn’t just like this about horses. My father will gamble on anything that moves. He won’t do Bingo or fruit machines or snow on Christmas Day, but horses and pontoon and poker and
dogs. My father’s love is Chance. Look at that roulette wheel! Bet red, bet black, bet red, bet black. If he could place his bet Under Starter’s Orders he would still change his mind
over every fence. The Form makes no difference, the words don’t make sense, and the odds at Joe Coral have no bearing on his stake.

He has always been this way, according to my mother. She made her own bet on him, in November 1948, in the church of St Mark’s, in a white lace gown.

~  ~  ~

This is what happens just before I am born: it’s 1960. My parents, Frankie and Mary, have five beautiful daughters, and a half-share in a cafe overlooking Cardiff docks.
Salvatore Capanone, my father’s oldest friend, owns the other half. The sailors on shore leave pour in through the red door to eat, and find a girl. My family lives above the cafe. They have
two rooms; one long one, divided into bedroom and lounge by a thick toile curtain depicting scenes of the French aristocracy, and an airless back room which they call The Pit, because you have to
climb down into it. My sisters inhabit The Pit, and my father has put a gate up in the doorway to stop Luca, who’s only two years old, from climbing up the steps and falling down again. Luca
swings her fat leg over the gate whenever my mother isn’t looking, and falls from that instead.

There is a third room, one more flight up. It has a square wooden table covered with worn green felt, and four vinyl-backed chairs stacked one upon the other. In the far corner is a window where
a blind conceals the day. My mother never goes into this room; it’s not hers to use.

There is no kitchen. Every morning my mother trudges downstairs to the cafe to fetch food for my sisters to eat, which they do, sitting in a long line on the couch and watching the Test Card on
the television in the corner, while she moves her washing from surface to surface, doing her impression of someone who is tidy. My father’s old sea chest is the only storage space, filled
with baby clothes. I’ll be wearing them soon. My mother knows this, but she doesn’t want to air the clothes because my father doesn’t. Also, she’s determined that I’m
a boy this time, and so a lot of the shawls and bonnets and little woollen coats will be redundant, being mainly pink.

Celesta, who’s eleven going on forty, is helping to get Marina and Rose ready for school. They look like two turnips in their cream-coloured balaclava hats, and Celesta doesn’t want
to be seen with them. She wears a straw boater with a chocolate-brown ribbon, bought for when she goes to Our Lady’s Convent School. She won’t start there until next term, by which time
the boater will have a distinctly weathered look, but at the moment she wears it all the time, even in bed. Fran has just begun at primary school. She draws angry pictures of bonfires using three
crayons at a time. My mother pays no attention to this, having to deal with Luca now, and the prospect of me later.

When the other children leave, my mother squashes Luca into her hip and goes downstairs to the cafe. She unbolts the front door, slipping off the heavy chain which swings against the wood, and
paces the narrow aisle between the tables. At the furthest end, where the daylight doesn’t stretch, are two booths and a long counter. Close to its brass lip sit a single smeared tumbler and
a half-empty bottle of Advocaat. The air is sweetish here. A sleeveless Peggy Lee is propped against the gramophone in the corner – Salvatore has had a late night.

My mother eases Luca into her high chair, and as soon as she is down, with the rush of cold around her thigh, she screams. She won’t stop until she has something sticky on bread, or until
my father comes back from the market and swings her in his arms. Luca can’t understand why she isn’t allowed to practise running. Salvatore used to let her, when my mother had to go and
fetch Fran, or hunt the Bookies for my father.

Frankie and Salvatore are a strange brace. My father is smooth and lean, well cut in his well-cut suit. His partner is softer, larger, with milky hands and brimming eyes. Every morning Salvatore
puts a clean white handkerchief in the pocket of his apron to deal with the tears which will flow through the day. He blames the heat of the kitchen, rather than his childless wife or the plaintive
tones of Mario Lanza. The air is full of music when Salvatore cooks. He plays Dino and Sammy, endless Sinatra, and his favourite, Louis Prima, who reminds him of somewhere not quite like home. The
records are stacked in the plate rack on top of the counter, the plates haphazardly stowed beneath. Salvatore glides through the days and nights, dusting flour into the grooves of Julie London,
wiping her clean with his napkin. And then he wipes his eyes.

There is a delicate division of labour in this business. Salvatore is a better cook than Frankie, for whom the flames of the kitchen are too much like his vision of Hell. So while Salvatore cuts
his fingers, brands the soft flesh of his forearm on the searing stove, and sings and cries, Frankie wears his suit and does things with money upstairs. But Salvatore likes it this way, he gets to
see people.

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