“Are you crazy?”
The woman leaned away from me in her seat, like my lunacy might be contagious.
We were sitting at the departure gate in Heathrow, about to take a fifteen-hour overnight flight from London to Buenos Aires. My reluctant bench-mate was heading home, while I was leaving mine behind. She didn’t think this was a good idea. Diminutive, and dressed in a worn-out business suit, she had half-moon spectacles perched on the tip of her beaky nose. A doorstop hardback sat open in her lap, and her battered kitten heels looked like they’d been accompanying her on her travels for decades.
She’d struck up conversation with me just minutes before. I’d told her I was moving to Argentina and she’d nodded vaguely. “You have been sent by your company?”
“Then you are married to an Argentine woman?”
Again, I told her no.
She frowned anxiously. “But… you have been to Argentina before?”
I shook my head.
“Not a word,” I said, offering her a sheepish smile.
That’s when she called me crazy.
Of course, I saw her point. But one of the few facts I knew about Argentina was that it boasted more psychoanalysts per head than any other country on Planet Earth. Being crazy, I figured, would only help me to blend in.
That was nearly four years ago, and since then I’ve spent a surprising amount of time listening to friends talk about their mental health over plates of empanadas. Last week, Ricardo and I were sitting outside a bar on a cobbled street in Palermo, Buenos Aires, lunatic-watching.
“I’ve been seeing a psychiatrist for the past eight years,” Ricardo suddenly said in a loud voice. He poured some more wine, studying me a moment. “How about you, are you seeing anyone?”
“No one special,” I said.
I’d meant it as a joke, but Ricardo started recommending the names of various doctors he knew. “These people could really help you,” he said.
Help me do what? I wanted to ask, but the waitress appeared at our table, clearing space for a platter of German sausages. As I stared anxiously at the bratwurst, I thought back to that scene at Heathrow, wondering if the woman who’d called me crazy was still wearing those battered kitten heels. Probably, I thought, knowing this economy.
When I looked up again, Ricardo was stroking his beard. “You seem… uncomfortable.”
“I’m English,” I said, shifting my weight from one buttock to the other. “We’re always uncomfortable. Especially when it comes to talking about… you know…” I waved a vague hand. “… this stuff.”
I checked our surroundings. “Mental stuff.”
Ricardo forked some sauerkraut, eyeing me. “Why?”
“Because we’re English,” I said. “We don’t admit to things like that.”
“Things like what?”
I sighed. “Mental things.”
“Because we’re English.”
Ricardo nodded, knocking back some wine. “You English are so fucked up.”
I signalled for another carafe. As we ate and drank, Ricardo talked about some of the “breakthroughs” he’d had lately with his shrink. “For example,” he said, “I’ve realised that I don’t want to own a fleet of Ferraris. That’s been a big one.”
“Ferraris?” I said, confused.
“Exactly,” Ricardo said, leaning on his elbows against the table. “Until recently, I knew that I didn’t own a fleet of Ferraris. But now, I know that I don’t want to. Do you see the distinction?”
His eyes drifted up towards the starry sky.
“It probably sounds insignificant to you, but that tiny insight has changed my life. I tell you, it’s like a weight has been lifted. I’m under far less pressure. And I feel…” He rolled his shoulders. “I feel like a new man. I feel free.”
You don’t see many Ferraris in Buenos Aires, and I couldn’t help thinking that these pensioners were asking for trouble
The next morning, I went out for breakfast to a nearby café. Like the previous night, I was sat outside, at a table on a street corner, only this time, a brand-new racing red Ferrari pulled up to the kerb beside me. It was driven by a silver-haired man in Aviator sunglasses and tan leather gloves. He had a pink cashmere sweater thrown over his shoulders. Alongside him, in the passenger seat, was another silver-haired man in Aviator sunglasses. He also had a cashmere sweater thrown over his shoulders, only his was robin’s egg blue.
I watched them, sipping my coffee as I thought about Ricardo and his analyst. The driver of the Ferrari pushed a button and a complex series of mechanisms brought the car’s convertible top down. I wasn’t the only person staring. You don’t see many Ferraris in Buenos Aires, and I couldn’t help thinking that these polished pensioners were asking for big trouble. The day before I’d watched a pedestrian get mugged by a kid on a motorbike a mere block away, on the same boulevard.
With the top now down, the Ferrari’s doors opened, and the two old men stepped out of the car. At least, they tried to. The sports car was too low to the ground and they couldn’t make it upright without the assistance of the two of the waiters in waistcoats and bow ties, who came scuttling to their aid.
A lifetime of work, I remember thinking, for a single moment of humiliation.
Later that same day, I sat on my balcony and spoke to my parents via a video call. “How’s England?” I asked.
“The plonking twerps still haven’t explained the instructions to our new boiler,” my mother snapped. “Meanwhile, the sodding pigeons just sit in the tree in the front garden and crap non-stop. We’ve had the same ghastly grey drizzle all week. And Edith next door has dug what appears to be a grave in her flower bed. We think she might have murdered someone.”
My father appeared on the screen, clutching a book. “Ah, there you are! I want to show you something.” He thrust the book towards the camera. “See this? I hope so, because it’s your heirloom. I bought it on the internet the other day and it arrived in the post this morning.”
“What is it?”
“Lorna Doone by Somebody Blacksomething.” He checked the spine. “R. D. Blackmore. Have you read it?”
“I think so,” I said. “Years ago, but—”
“Well, this is a 1935 leather-bound embossed public library copy,” my father continued. “It’s got a bookmark in it, and a vintage postcard, gratis. I immediately emailed the seller back because I was so pleased with it.”
“I emailed them,” my mother said. “Your father doesn’t have the foggiest clue how to email anybody.”
I stared. “Yes, but—”
“You know how I always wake up with a song in my head?” my father said. “Well, Thursday morning, I woke up thinking about Lorna Doone. And then I thought, I want to read Lorna Doone again, before I die! Although, I haven’t actually read it before. That is, I started reading it in my early teens — I think… Ha! — but I haven’t got around to finishing it yet. I believe it was serialised on television, but that was when we didn’t have a TV, wasn’t it?”
“How should I know?” my mother said with a shrug.
“And that’s my heirloom?” I asked.
My father grinned. “Correct! Unless your sister nicks it first — which she probably will. What with you being in…”
“Right.” He held the book up again for me to admire. “It was so reasonably priced that I had to have it. And one day, when I die, it’ll be yours! Hopefully.”
On my bedroom wall was a four-foot-wide poster of a blonde in a bikini sprawled across the bonnet of a Ferrari Testarossa
Growing up, I had a friend whose father owned a Ferrari. Occasionally, he would pull into our family driveway and give me a lift to tennis or football practice. Curled up in the pitiful excuse for a backseat, my knees wedged under my chin, I could not have been more jealous. As we raced through suburban Hertfordshire, losers in much crappier cars would wave and point at us, like the Queen had just ridden past in her carriage. Why can’t you be my father? I wondered, watching my friend’s dad groom his handsome moustache in the Ferrari’s rear-view mirror.
“Your father used to drive sports cars,” my mother told me one day, after I voiced my brattish frustrations. “But then you came along and he had to give them up.”
“So, it’s my fault?”
She looked at me, nonplussed. “What’s your fault?”
I gestured to our perfectly civilised surroundings. “All… this.”
How could I ever expect to be understood by a woman like that? On my bedroom wall was a four-foot-wide poster of a blonde in a micro-bikini sprawled across the bonnet of a Ferrari Testarossa. There was a reason she wasn’t sprawled across the bonnet of one of my father’s company saloons — couldn’t my mother see that?
Whenever my parents brought home a new, boring car, they’d present it to my sister and me with great fanfare. “Well?” they’d say, standing proudly alongside its doors, which opened in the conventional, uncool way. “What do you think?”
We’d roll our eyes and skulk back into the house, cursing the god who’d condemned us to a family of such intolerable naffness. On one humiliating occasion, we watched from the living room window as our mother whizzed into the driveway on two roller-skate-sized wheels, honking the squeaky horn of the used Renault 5 she’d just bought. “Maybe we’re adopted,” I suggested, as my sister’s bottom lip started to tremble. “I bet our real parents drive a Lamborghini.”
An unhealthy chunk of my childhood was spent constructing scale models of stately homes out of Lego
I don’t know where it came from, my obsession with money. An unhealthy chunk of my childhood was spent constructing scale models of stately homes out of Lego. “Look,” I’d say to my parents, pointing towards one of the stable yards, “this is where we keep our thoroughbreds.” Or, “I’m thinking of adding a second moat.” On weekends, I’d hijack family outings to grand country estates, playacting like we lived in them. “You simply must discharge our servants,” I’d tell my exasperated mother in a showy voice. “They’re ignorant, ne’er-do-well peasants who pilfer all of our silverware and spoil our finest tapestries.” Then I’d point up at one of the enormous swagger portraits. “Oh, look, mother, Great Uncle Ormerod exhibiting his newly polished sword! How spiffing he always looks in his breeches, wouldn’t you concur, papá?”
My father was entirely indifferent to the pursuit of money, failing even to comprehend its value. An unapologetic snob, he acted as if his highbrow tastes were in no way dependent upon an ability to pay for them. Ushering me to concert halls and overpriced restaurants, he’d discover at the crucial moment that his pockets were empty. “It’s my wife’s fault,” the furious maître d’ or the po-faced woman in the ticket office would be told. “She’s sent me out without money or cards, again.” To this day, he has zero understanding of the difference between debit and credit and is constantly handing cashiers the wrong bank cards and getting them cancelled. “Well, how was I supposed to know?” he asks when my mother yells at him for the millionth time, tearing her hair out.
His childhood was spent roaming the countryside, dreaming of music and poetry. “Money never entered my mind,” he said to me once when we were out walking together. “I just didn’t need it—and I didn’t understand anybody who did.”
“Yes, but I might need it,” I reminded him.
He stared into the distance over a series of rolling, mist-covered hills. Then he shrugged his shoulders. “Well, that’s your problem.”
One of his favourite songs was Bing Crosby’s “I Haven’t Time to Be a Millionaire” which he liked to croon to us in his car:
By a country road wild roses grow that need my special care,
So I haven’t time to be a millionaire;
And a cheerful brook on a mountainside is sad when I’m not there,
So I haven’t time to be a millionaire;
And a friendly gang of robins are peeved when I forget
That I’m second tenor in their quartet.
So with all the things I have to do, I’m very much aware,
If I wished for wealth it wouldn’t be quite fair,
’Cause I haven’t time to be a millionaire.
“You realise, of course, that this song is about you?” I said to him one time.
And without a hint of irony, he stopped singing mid-phrase and said, “Is it? In what way?”
One sunny afternoon when I was fourteen, my father turned off the music in his car and started to drum his fingers against the steering wheel. “There’s something I need you both to know,” he said in an ominous voice.
I turned to look at my eleven-year-old sister, who was strapped into her seatbelt. We both pulled “Yikes!” faces.
“It may be improper to say so, but as your father, it is my firm belief that I don’t owe either of you anything.”
A silence filled the car—one that I can still hear to this day.
My father signalled to turn. “I’m telling you this now, before it’s too late. I don’t want the pair of you expecting anything that’s not coming your way. Have I made myself clear?”
“Perfectly,” I said, refusing to look at him.
“I don’t understand,” came my sister’s unsteady voice from the backseat.
“Well, you will,” my father said. “One day.”
I was often encouraged by my father to pursue a career as a gigolo
For me, that day came at university, when it first dawned on me that my fellow students had grown up in the kind of stately homes I visited as a boy. It hit even harder as a young professional, when I discovered that my fledgling peers owned extortionate London properties bought for them by their fathers. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” my father said when I brought up this harsh reality one night in an Italian restaurant. I really had to hand it to him.
Instead, from a young age, I was encouraged by him to pursue a career as a gigolo. “With your looks,” he used to say, “you could cream off of any woman you wanted. I advise that when you turn eighteen, you start loitering around Harrod’s. Find yourself a wealthy dowager or two. It’s your best hope.”
I could pretend that he was joking, although he wasn’t. But I don’t hold it against him. I don’t hold anything against him, which of course drives my mother crazy. My love for him is absolute, unshakable, and his laughable defectiveness as a father somehow only adds to his appeal.
A couple of days after the Lorna Doone incident, I thought back to my father’s plan to pimp me out. I was enjoying merienda, or high tea, in a ritzy café in my upscale barrio, when a barefoot urchin entered the premises, begging for help. Her saucer-eyed face was smeared with dirt and her grubby Disney T-shirt was several sizes too small for her little body. She approached the table next to mine with an outstretched hand, her tiny palm turned towards the ornate ceiling.
“Are you hungry?” the young woman sitting at the table asked her. She nodded and the woman called over the waiter, ordering the girl a medialuna, or croissant.
But the girl wanted more. She scampered across the café to press her soiled face against the display cabinet. Slapping her hands against the glass, she shouted for somebody to buy her a selection of the sumptuous pastries. A slab of cheesecake layered with exotic red berries. A rich chocolate tart with oodles of dulce de leche. The previous week I’d read in the newspaper that 63 per cent of children in Argentina live in poverty. That adds up to 8.3 million children. In the nation’s 4,000 most populous neighbourhoods, the article said, child poverty exceeds 90 per cent.
The café staff eventually kicked the little girl from the premises and two minutes later her mother appeared, pushing a tattered toy buggy, encircled by her brood of barefoot beggar children. “Can’t you see that we’re poor?” she screamed at the waiters. Then she turned to the rest of us, bent over our coffees and cakes. “Whores! Can’t you see that we’re poor?”
Nothing would scare my mother more than hearing me dismiss £1.81 as a trivial sum of money
The young woman at the next table made eye contact with me. She smiled sadly, hopelessly, and I smiled back, not knowing what else to do. The mother and her children stomped off up the street and I dug my fork into my cheesecake, watching them through the window. I could see that they were poor. The craziest thing about the scene they’d just made, though, was that I’d witnessed it play out exactly the same way a hundred times before in Buenos Aires. Almost as if it was scripted, like a play.
When I arrived home, my parents video-called me again via WhatsApp. “Hi mum, hi dad.”
“Guess what I got today?” my mother asked. “Try not to get too excited.”
“This is better than Lorna Doone!” claimed my father.
They’d clearly planned the whole routine. My mother held a piece of paper up to the camera and I leaned towards my phone, trying to read it.
“It’s a cheque,” my mother said. “From Santander.”
“Correct. Can you see the amount?”
I squinted my eyes but couldn’t make it out.
“£1.81!” my mother cried. “How about that, eh?”
I stayed silent; my mouth having fallen open.
My mother spent the next ten minutes speculating about where and how she could go to pay the cheque into one of her savings accounts. Nothing would scare her more than hearing me dismiss £1.81 as a trivial sum of money. “Look after the pennies,” she never stops saying. She just never finishes the rest of the proverb.
I stood up to go get a glass of water, carrying the phone in front of my face.
“Where are you going?” my mother asked.
“To the kitchen. Is that OK? I’m thirsty. I ate too much sugar in the café earlier.”
They were both peering over my shoulder. “Your apartment looks very… grand,” my father said with a frown.
He slapped his hands against his thighs. “Well, bully for you!”
My mother pursed her lips and lowered her eyes. “Enjoy it while it lasts, ducky,” she said. “Because it won’t.”
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