Extract from Winged with Death
(My latest novel is entitled Winged with Death. It is partly set in Montevideo in the seventies in the midst of civil war. Another arm of the novel is set in the present day in the North of England. It is a novel about time and tango and revolution, abduction and denial. Published by Flambard Press.)
The following is an extract from Winged with Death:
It was 1972 and I was eighteen years old. I had jumped ship and watched while she sailed away. I left the docks and stood on the white beach while the Hanseatic Shipping Company’s freighter put to sea and headed for Cape Horn and Santiago, leaving me behind in Uruguay. I knew no one in Montevideo. I had no contacts in South America. I had a Spanish phrase book, about twenty pounds freshly converted into pesos, a slim volume each of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky and nowhere to live. I realize now that this was my way of reinventing myself, something that every young person has to do sooner or later. But I hadn’t thought it through. And looking back I am amazed that I was such an extremist. I could have become a punk and found redemption in tartan and safety pins or joined an ashram in Goole. It wasn’t necessary to travel to the other side of the world.
That first day, when the ship had disappeared from view, I felt like Robinson Crusoe abandoned on his desert island. Somewhere out on the River Plate were a series of buoys marking the grave of the German pocket battleship, the Graf Spee. One of the old hands had pointed them out to me when we were crossing over from Buenos Aires. But they say that the whole area is littered with wrecks.
There was fear mixed with anticipation, but basically my view of the situation was romantic. I had no concept of having marooned myself on the shores of a country about to be ruled by a military dictatorship. My political consciousness was yet to be born.
Looking back, it is difficult to recall the young man that I was at that time. He was not someone I know. When I try to recall him I find myself with a character so much older than the me I now know. Or I find myself contemplating someone so shallow in experience that he is still a child.
Part of me wants to rush back in time to 1972 and try to save this old young man from his fate. But it is not possible to do that, and if it were possible it would not be right. He doesn’t know it, but he is reaching out for me.
If we could travel backwards and forwards in time and by some trick of linearity he and I could meet and compare notes it would be merely interesting for me, while for him it would be a terrible fait accompli. I have a vision of all of us meeting together, not just him in that year, but the me that I was as a child and all the mes I have been since. When I was twenty, and again when I was thirty, forty. We could have a conference, hire a hotel for a weekend, thrash it all out, apportion blame for the mistakes and make awards for the small victories. Then, late on Sunday evening we would say our goodbyes and return to our separate lives.
I left the beach and wandered in the district of Montevideo they call Ciudad Vieja, the old town. Children begging, some of them little more than toddlers trying to sell sweets on the corner of a street. Wealthy tourists, too, and middle class Uruguayan women draped in the latest fashions from New York and London. A few blacks; more than I’d expected; even more people of mixed race. I scored an olímpico, a huge club sandwich on toasted bread with mayonnaise and steak and about fifteen other ingredients. I sat on a low wall and looked around at the colonial buildings and ate until my jaws hurt. I only paid pennies for the olímpico but it kept me in food for the next twenty-four hours.
Montevideo was dusty in those days. The old buildings were baked in the sun and the tooth of time and neglect had worn away at the stones. There was always something in your eye, and when you ate outside there were pieces of grit in your mouth. They say it’s better now, that the buildings have been restored and the dust has disappeared.
There was a second-hand clothes shop with a huge Turk in the doorway eating something sticky with his fingers. He had a shaven head and tattoos on his forearms and his bull-neck was ridged at the back. I couldn’t tell if the ridge was from wearing a cap or if it was a flap of fat and I hung around the window too long trying to get a closer look at him. I must have made him nervous because he grunted and glared and disappeared inside.
Around the back of the Hotel Plaza Fuerte on Bartolomé Mitre I met Julio Ferrari. He must have been thirty years old at the time, a small man with black hair and a day’s growth of beard. He was framed in the doorway to the hotel’s kitchen, the butt of a cigarette deepening the nicotine stains on the fingers of his right hand. He wore a long apron which obscured his feet.
‘Hola. ¿qué desea?’
I dug the Spanish phrase book out of my pocket.
‘Americano?’ he asked.
‘English.’ He took a step towards me and stood very close.
He laughed. ‘Long way from home.’ He took a drag on his cigarette, pulling the smoke into his lungs and flicked the butt away from him, watching as it arced across the street. ‘You’re running away?’
It must have been written on my forehead. I stepped back, feeling uncomfortable by our proximity.
‘Don’t step back,’ he said. ‘In England you can keep your distance, here we get closer together.’
‘You can wash dishes,’ he said. ‘You get free food, a few pesos a day. We’re not going to make you rich. What’s your name?’
‘Frederick,’ I told him. ‘Frederick Boyle.’
‘No one’ll get it,’ he said. ‘We’ll call you Ramon.’ He thought for a moment. ‘Ramon Bolio. You have somewhere to stay, Ramon?’
I shook my head.
‘There’s a room in my conventillo. You don’t mind pigs.’
‘You keep pigs?’
‘Doesn’t everyone?’ That laugh again. Julio had large teeth with distinctive gaps around each of them. He seemed out of place in a town, the kind of character you would expect to meet in the countryside. I discovered later that he was a member of the Tupamaros, an urban guerilla movement and that many of his compatriots had been selectively ‘disappeared’ by the military. All the more surprising, then, that he was so open and helpful to me. On the other hand, I eventually came to believe that his survival owed as much to his naivety and honesty as it did to his clandestine lifestyle and the secret world in which his hopes and aspirations lay hidden.
Julio was a man of aphorisms, English, American, Australian as well as Uruguayan, and they would spill out of him, sometimes making sense but often seemingly devoid of context. Maxims which had had more reincarnations than the Dalai Lama. He poured them back into the world from which he had plucked them, a verbal recycler in a land of eucalyptus and lemon trees.
‘Middle-class is the definition of criminality,’ he would tell me. Or, ‘I don’t use drugs, my dreams are frightening enough.’ Another time he would say, ‘When the chips are down, the buffalo is empty.’
I’m still trying to work that one out.
Weird day. I met a guy on the street and not only did I let him trash my name, both of them, but I meekly accepted a new name from him. I didn’t know what the name meant. I still don’t know what that is: Bolio. There’s a breed of pit bull called Bolio. In England I’d be called Raymond Pit bull.
It’s one of those things where you say, only on that day. Because it couldn’t have happened any other day. That day in 1972 I was up for change. I’d already changed my country, where I lived, and now I allowed the first person I met to change my name, my job, everything.
It reminds me of Kilbrides. When we were kids, sometimes in the autumn or the spring, when there weren’t many tourists around, my father would take us to Whitby, to a fish restaurant called the Magpie café. You can get fresh halibut there, or grilled monk fish, lobster if you want to splash out.
And sometimes, if Whitby was too busy he’d drive on to another place on the coast, Ravenscar or Robin Hood’s Bay, and at one of those places was Kilbrides restaurant. They didn’t do fish. At Kilbrides you ate boiled ham or beef and they served it with their own bread. It wasn’t that the Magpie was better than Kilbrides, or the other way around. They were just different places.
But at Kilbrides you got the whole family, the wife, Mrs Kilbrides, and their children, the grandmother and this other old crone who was supposed to be the grandmother’s friend, but they argued all the time. You could hear them in the back, cursing each other and chuntering away in a broad Irish accent that was indecipherable if you were a kid.
And then there was Kilbrides himself. A stout man with a wild black moustache and corduroy trousers with no turn-ups, frayed around his feet.
Kilbrides, mind you. Not Kilbride. Nothing so simple. Missus Kilbrides, whatever she was called before she married him she must’ve had the odd qualm. Or if she didn’t have it herself, surely her mother must’ve brought it up.
If a man is called Painter you can say with some confidence that one of his ancestors was a painter. You won’t know if he was a house painter or a real artist, not without doing a little research. But you can be sure that he worked with paint. The same with a man called Cook, it’s fairly certain that he comes from a line of people who work with food.
And Kilbride, if that is your name, then it might be that you were suspected, or one of your ancestors was suspected of getting rid of the little lady shortly after the wedding ceremony.
But Kilbrides? Surely that takes us well past the stage of dabbling.
And if it’s happened once it can happen again. That’s how the genetic thing works. Certain genes go to sleep for a generation or two, maybe they go to sleep for ten generations. But they don’t die and they don’t go away for ever. Sooner or later they’re going to find their way to the surface again.
And if once there was a man who did indeed kill his brides, all of them, then you can be certain that before long his genes will re-establish themselves in the unsuspecting hands of his great-great-great grandson or the son of a nephew or cousin currently residing in Ravenscar on the North Yorkshire coast.
Or so we would speculate on the drive home over the moors.
My brother has come into the room. Stephen is a little slow. I watch the knob turn and his head appear around the door. He doesn’t say anything. I glance at him and am aware of him standing there, but I ignore him and type these words on the keyboard to let him know I’m busy and don’t want to be interrupted. But I’m not convinced he’ll get it.
He can’t see me typing anyway because he suffers from a strange medical condition known as movement agnosia, which means that he can’t detect movement. There are not a lot of them, people like Stephen, with this particular affliction, but more than you might think. I can’t, with any certainty, describe what movement agnosia feels like from the inside. But from observing and talking with Stephen and from reading the textbooks on the subject and using my imagination I believe that he sees the world as a series of snapshots. He sees my hand poised in the air above the keyboard, and he sees my fingers on the keys, but he doesn’t see anything in between. He clocks stationary moments. Because he can hear the tap, tap, tap of the keys he can work out that I am moving.
It’s the same outside of the house when he wants to cross the road. He can’t see the movement of oncoming traffic. He can only work out how fast or how near a car is by the sound of its engine.
Otherwise he functions normally. That he is a little slow is a separate problem. The two things are not connected.
He lives off Melrosegate and has spent his entire life in York. He’s slightly younger than me, going on fifty. Today he’s wearing a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows and grey trousers from British Home Stores. On his feet his favourite trainers with air cushions built into the sole. He hasn’t shaved. My mother, his mother, died giving birth to him.
Now he’s sidling round the room, walking like a crab. He needs to attract my attention but he knows I don’t want to be disturbed. He’s trying to be invisible.
There is a possibility that I have drawn him here. That in beginning to write this autobiography I have unwittingly coaxed him into the house, into this room. Stephen cannot imagine us as separate beings. When I was in Uruguay he spoke about me every day. Father said he regarded me as a god.
If I had begun the autobiography with a description of our childhood together Stephen might not be here now. But because I wrote him out of the story he was compelled to make an appearance.
The irony is that I did not intended to write him out of the story. I simply did not want to engage with a linear narrative. I was planning to refer back to childhood days, when Stephen would have had his entrances and his exits. But he couldn’t wait for that.
And the story is mine. It is by me, about me. Stephen is a bit-player in my life. He’s my only living relative but I don’t live in his pocket. He does, though, when I allow it, live in mine.
A shiver runs through me and I’m reminded of the pampero, a cold and sometimes violent wind which blows north from the Argentine pampas. I don’t know if Stephen has brought this with him or if it is a figment of my imagination. But whatever, I’m not able to continue my story with him creeping round the room.
Give me a moment. I have to deal with this.
Hannah has gone missing. Hannah is Stephen’s daughter. She’s sixteen. She’s Stephen’s adopted daughter. She actually belongs to Debbie, who is Stephen’s wife. Debbie is also obtuse, dilatory. Stephen and Debbie are worried.
Hannah went out last night, supposedly to the supermarket to buy bacon and she didn’t come back. Debbie cooked the eggs and she and Stephen ate them with soldiers. They went to bed and this morning they got up and Hannah still hadn’t returned.
‘She’s done this before,’ I told him.
‘But she’s changed since then, Ramon. She wouldn’t go anywhere without telling us.’
‘It’s not that long. In the spring she went missing for two days. We had the police out, remember? She’d gone to Middlesborough, staying with somebody’s aunt.’
Stephen shook his head. I couldn’t work out if he’d forgotten the incident or if he thought it was irrelevant.
‘Look, Stephen, I’m busy at the moment. I’ve got something I need to finish. Leave it until the middle of the afternoon. I’ll come round, but she’ll probably be back by then.’
‘Debbie’s crying,’ he said.
‘You comfort her, Stephen. Tell her there’s nothing to worry about.’
He left looking crestfallen and unconvinced by my argument.
Hannah’s a wonderful girl. Beautiful and bright, always joking. She’s a dancer, too. With talent. She helps me out on occasion, if I need a partner for a demonstration or a class. She can think with her body, knows how to interpret the music. Stephen doesn’t dance at all. He has problems with coordination, finds it difficult to hop.
And it’s not surprising that she needs to go walkabout from time to time. Living with Stephen and Debbie day in and day out would try anyone’s patience. If it was me I’d want a couple of days off every week.
I’m not convinced by Stephen’s story. I think she does tell them what she’s doing and they simply forget. Or they haven’t listened in the first place.
The interruption has upset the flow of my story. The narrative was coming naturally, easily, but now I’ve lost the rhythm and I’m finding it difficult to jump back in. This is not entirely Stephen’s fault. I didn’t sleep last night. I’m irritable and grouchy.
Julio’s conventillo was a large old house which had been the residence of a rich merchant but which was now in multi-family occupation. It was teeming with people of all ages and there was the constant hum of their interactions. I had a tiny room with a single small window at the top of the stairs. It was like living in a cupboard. Outside my flimsy door people were coming and going at all hours of the day and night. There was always a child crying somewhere close by and the constant smell of pigs, though I never saw a pig while I lived there.
I should explain that pigs are a feature in Uruguay. At least they were back then. Pig farming was something of an urban industry, concentrated mainly in the slums or cantegriles located in marginal areas of the cities. Slums are slums the world over, sub-standard housing, poverty and a dearth of urban services. But pig farming was a new one on me. Changed the quality of my nightmares for the rest of my life.
The only person I’d heard of called Ramon was Ramon Novarro, an old Hollywood actor. But he was Mexican, not Uruguayan. I looked him up in an old actors-of-the-silver-screen-manual I found in a junk shop on the waterfront and he had a page to himself. He was one of the American film industry’s greatest Latin lovers. There was a photograph of him, black and white, with his arm around Joan Crawford. He was wearing a sailor’s peaked cap with a mop of black hair under it and his complexion was flawless. A real man. I was well pleased to inherit his name. Glad to leave Frederick behind.
It was much later, ten years or more, before I discovered Novarro was a homosexual. In 1968 he had taken a couple of brothers, street hustlers Paul and Tom Ferguson to his Laurel Canyon home, where twenty-two year old Paul had tortured him to death in the mistaken belief that the actor had thousands of dollars hidden somewhere in the house. Novarro was found on his bed, naked. His wrists and ankles bound with electrical cord, and his body disfigured. A black lead Art Deco dildo given to him by Rudolph Valentino had been used to bludgeon him to death and then jammed down his throat.
Would Mr Sigmund Freud please come to the office of the chief constable.
I decided that Novarro wasn’t the inspiration for my new Christian name. In South America every third guy is called Ramon. There’s no kudos being named after a murder victim.
My room was empty that first night. No bed, no chair or table. A strange, deserted scent about the place. The smell of a new country and of anticipation and excitement and fear and dust all rolled into one. ‘I do not regard this as an auspicious beginning,’ Julio said. He lent me a sleeping bag, army surplus which was ripped and stained and felt as though it had been used by an entire regiment and its girlfriends. I could feel the floor through it, the next morning my hips and shoulders were raw. I had the whole day ahead of me to find something better for the following night.
I ended up with a home-made straw mattress from a young mixed-race couple on the ground floor. Her father had died on it the previous week and none of her kids would use it. Within a few days I’d got a chair and a sofa, a small table to eat off. I painted the ceiling and the walls white and in a second-hand shop I found a woven carpet that covered half the floor and a wicker wall cupboard with a pitted mirror. A couple of sisters, my neighbours girls came in and tried to improve my phrase-book Spanish. They were Esther, sixteen years old, myopic and bespectacled, and Maria, fifteen, sultry with anger and lust. They told me I spoke the language well and I didn’t believe them, but with hindsight they were right. I picked it up quickly and eventually my English accent didn’t show through.
Well, maybe a little. Most English speakers have difficulties in Spanish.
‘Why don’t you like us?’ Esther asked.
‘I do like you,’ I told them. ‘I like you both.’ I wanted to sleep with them both at the same time.
‘You always step back,’ she said. ‘As if we smell.’
‘I’m sorry. It’s an English thing. I’ve already been told about it. I’m learning.’
Esther had some water-colours and she painted a blue giraffe on my new white wall. It was abstract but you could see it was a giraffe by the neck and it brought some class to the room. Style. Whenever I had visitors they would remark on the giraffe. I never had to point it out.
Julio helped me get the furniture together, and when I needed transport for the sofa and table he borrowed a pick-up from one of his friends. He drove it for me and helped hump the stuff up the stairs to my room. ‘The things that come to those who wait are usually the things left by those who got there first,’ he told me. Once or twice a week he would invite me to the place he shared with two women, his girlfriend, Fanny, who was a hooker and out in the evenings, and her sit-at-home sister who sucked strong mints and wrung her hands. ‘When I met her I couldn’t believe it,’ he said. ‘A whole woman called Fanny.’ We’d sit together exchanging stories and quaffing Clericó, a mixture of white wine and fruit juice, or downing enormous quantities of mate tea, Julio pouring water into the gourd and passing it from one to the other of us. The sister, Florencia, rarely spoke. From time to time she’d hum a tune under her breath, but she didn’t know she was doing it. Julio said it was a song about memory and the peace of death.
I said we could bottle her and sell her in the chemist as a sedative.
Later we’d go out to eat, perhaps meet up with Fanny at one of the restaurants on the edge of the Ciudad Vieja. Fanny changed the dynamic between us because Julio couldn’t take his eyes off her. He watched her all the time. And I watched him watching her. It was always the same, she was an endless fascination for him. We talked politics in those early days, but as the years passed and the repression intensified the internal situation occupied us more and more. Amnesty International calculated that in 1976 Uruguay had more political prisoners per capita than any other nation on earth.
It slowly dawned on me that the conventillo was crawling with old women. The children and young families were what grabbed your attention because of the noise they made and the speed at which they took the stairs and corridors. But they were vastly outnumbered by the old women who occupied the landings, the corners and the cracks in the floorboards. I would hear their steady gait passing my door and as I came and went there would be one or more of them stopping for breath on the stairs, a shopping bag over one arm, a wizened face peering from beneath a headscarf and a wasted body covered in black, always black. Cobweb thin skin.
Outside the house there were more of them in the dusty streets. There were the beggars wrapped in rags, toothless and often wailing mad. And there were the middle class old women, the ones who didn’t wear black, who wore fashionable hats and jewellery and talked to themselves and to Jesus, but who moved with the same pained dignity as their sisters in the conventillo.
After half a year Julio asked me if I could teach English to the son of one of the hotel’s customers and introduced me to the boy’s father, Capitán Miguel García Ramírez of the Uruguayan army.
The Capitán was thirty-five years old and immaculately turned out. His dress uniform was tailored to fit with gleaming gold buttons and braiding on the shoulder-boards. His hair cut short but with a lick of a wave and a soft complexion which, had he been an actor in a film, would have suggested a homo-erotic personality. He had a face out of a men’s underwear catalogue. His son was ten years old and could speak English, but not well enough for the father.
‘The Capitán is exact,’ Julio told me. ‘The military is like this in all the countries of the world, but in Uruguay even more so. They are taught to be technicians. They grade themselves according to the degree of their perfection.’ This was Julio’s way of telling me to watch myself. The military was universally hated, but also feared, and this was a lesson I had not neglected to learn during my first months in the country.
Capitán Miguel García Ramírez of the Uruguayan army had requested that I become the tutor to his son but in fact there was no decision to be made on my part. If an officer of the military made a request, you obeyed. The alternative was to wait for the knock on your door in the middle of the night or simply to be ‘disappeared’ with no record of an arrest, no witnesses, no resurrection. You were ‘with’ the military government, that is, you did as you were told, or you were ‘against’ them. And to be against them wasn’t clever.
He was my first contact with the military. Back home in England I had no relatives involved in the services. My father was an architect; we knew nobody who wore a uniform. Consequently, García Ramírez gave me the willies. It took me a long time to see through the façade of the man. I half expected him to fly into an uncontrollable rage over a slip of the tongue. My tongue. When I arrived at the door of his villa on the edge of the Prado park to commence lessons with Pablito, there was part of me that expected to be horse-whipped.
But what I was presented with was a lithe, athletic man, rather dashing, unconsciously moulded on Clark Gable’s characterization of Rhet Butler in Gone With The Wind. He didn’t have the moustache but he had the charm and the gear and the attitude. And he had no time for hesitation or uncertainty in his personal or professional life.
But of the two of them the Capitán was preferable to his son. There was always something modest about the officer, as though he knew the heavens showered him with blessings he did not deserve. Pablito, on the other hand, was a ten-year old prig who had blossomed under the knowledge that he was a member of the ruling class, that his family were privileged. And he was never going to let anyone forget it.
‘How much do we pay you?’ he asked on the day we met.
‘I think that’s between your father and me.’
‘Then I’ll ask papá,’ he said. ‘And he’ll tell me.’
‘Perhaps,’ I said. ‘I doubt it.’
‘And I’ll tell him you crossed me. But that I stood up to you.’
‘Shall we begin the lesson?’
‘You know papá is going to be in the government? Our family is one of the best connected in Montevideo.’
‘I’d like to start by finding out what you know about England.’
‘Papá doesn’t believe England is our friend. The Americans are the ones who will support us.’
But the pay was good. I could earn as much tutoring young Pablito for an hour as I could earn in a day at the hotel.
I must have been bright, or perhaps my entrepreneurial nature was jogged into action, because it didn’t take me long to realise that if I had one pupil I could probably get more. And that I didn’t have to look forward to a life of dirty dishes and slum conditions. I could be a private tutor, a member of the bourgeoisie, all I had to do was capitalise on my assets. Put myself about.
At that first meeting with Capitán Miguel García Ramírez he asked me for my identity card. I handed him my English passport. He glanced at it and handed it back. ‘Identity Card,’ he said.
‘I am a visitor to your country,’ I told him. ‘I don’t have an identity card.’
‘If you have no Identity Card you are not able to work here.’
‘I didn’t know that. I’m sorry.’
He slapped his thigh with the palm of his hand. ‘Report to the barracks tomorrow,’ he said. ‘They will have a card ready for you.’
During that first year in Montevideo I would come awake in my bed at night and wonder how I had managed to leave my home so far behind. Now, of course, I know that we are not born in our native land and as long as we hang on to that quaint concept we remain in the mists of childhood. The process of maturing is the slow realization that we are born in the world, that we belong as much to the stars in the heavens as we do to the herbs and grasses that populate the limited space we are taught to call home.
Where we belong is not a place that gives rise to emotions like affection. On the contrary our birthplace is a vast and complicated structure that defies definition. It is an infinitude of contradictions, visible and invisible, tactile and intangible, neither friend nor foe. Finally it’s a prison and our task is to loosen its hold on us so that we can enjoy a few brief moments of freedom.
The house in which I was born and in which I now live was originally a modest double-fronted building facing the Hull road on the edge of Tang Hall in the city of York. For many years the house suffered neglect; the paintwork had flaked away and the gutters and eaves rotted. The foundations had crumbled and the edifice leaned to the left. In the old days, around the transformation of the nineteenth into the twentieth century, it was said that the orchard at the back of the house was home to the best aromatic russet’s in the north of England.
But when my parents, the Boyles, moved in at the beginning of 1952 the house was repaired and modernised and the original foundations were shored up. For a time, so they say, the house looked prim, respectable and prosperous, reflecting Frederick Boyle’s personal fortune in the acquisition of his young wife and his prospects as an architect in the school of modernism. ‘You have to feel good in a space even if it is a small space,’ he would say. And when pressed he would admit to a political agenda in his work, because: ‘Architecture changes our lives.’
It’s difficult to guess or remember how long the house kept up appearances because within a few years it became obvious that my father’s destiny contained more than its fair share of tragedy. His young wife delivered a healthy baby boy in 1954 and died during the birth of their second child the following year. I was the first, Stephen my younger brother. Also in 1955 Frederick, our father, suffered an industrial accident that resulted in the paralysis of his right arm. These two incidents were accompanied by the growing realisation that the citizens of York were uninterested in the virtues of modernist architecture.
Frederick moved his office from its prestigious position in Stonegate to a room at the back of his house and settled for a life of small renovations, extensions, garage construction and the occasional consultation in interior design. Antoni Gaudí it was not, but it was a living and it gave him the possibility of bringing up his sons, Little Frederick, which is what I grew up thinking myself to be, and my brother, Stephen, without recourse to the expense of a Nanny. And it meant he could spend more time in the orchard.
My father didn’t neglect the house. To a certain extent, after the death of his wife, he lost interest in it. But if it needed paint or pointing or the replacement of fall pipes or windows he would get someone to fix it. Nevertheless, if it had ever looked prim, respectable and prosperous, it soon lost those properties and reverted to the poverty of its condition before we arrived. It was like a child which had suffered a trauma. No matter how much attention it received after the event, irrespective of the love and care which was directed towards it, the original devastation always showed through.
I wrote to my father in 1979, seven years after leaving his house and abandoning him and Stephen to each other’s company. I received his reply on the morning of the 3rd May the same year. I had just heard on the radio that Margaret Thatcher had become Britain’s first woman Prime Minister.
‘One thing strikes me,’ he said in his letter. ‘You haven’t done anything different to me. As a dancer you have chosen an artistic profession, as I did. And the branch of art that you have been drawn to is that which is concerned, like architecture, with spatial experience.
‘And this, in turn, leads me to suspect that you haven’t become someone completely different to me. You are yourself, of course, and the paths you have trod and the experiences you have made are incorporated in your individuality. But our genetic heritage is an autocratic master and would never consider setting us free.
‘Another thing. You do not mention your brother, Stephen. It would be nice if you sent him a card as he regards you as a god.’
In Uruguay I had carved out a precarious life for myself teaching English to the children of rich families in Montevideo. I had thought that I might live like this for a year, perhaps two, before returning to England. But one night in a small bar with no name near the white beach which surrounds the town, I stole a dark and pretty Uruguayan Tanguera called Candide from an older man, allowed myself to become enamoured by the music and movement of the dance and spent the next decade embroiled in the process of becoming a Milonguero, a master of the tango.