A Life Threatening Experience
I was living in Rome in 1967 and had fallen for a man with the phallic name of Pino Staffa. I had sat down at his usual table in the crowded local trattoria called Mondino's in Via dell' oca close to the Piazza del Popolo. Everyone went there because it was cheap, nourishing and a crazy place for actors from Cine Citta and even tramps to hang out. Rome was THE place to be in the 1960s. I remember a starlet saying to me "You must try everything" and winked at me knowingly! I sat across from Pino Staffa that fateful day and it was love at first bite.
I quickly moved into his home in the Vincolo Nomentana across from the little park where Orson Wells had shot his film "Root of Evil". Pino owned a garage that housed vintage cars and he worked on them during the day and by night mingled with the glitterati of Rome. He had built his home above the garage complete with a lovely patio where he cooked for me and my friends.
His bipolar wife Laura had walked out on him for another man several years earlier taking their two children with her. It was war at a time when divorce was not possible. So as far as I was concerned, he was an available single but separated attractive man. I was 23 and he must have been 44ish. He was handsome with a proud Roman nose and piercing eyes. A fine figure of a man who didn't speak English even though his closest friend was an English antique dealer with a showroom on the posh Via del Babuino.
Two idyllic months went by and we were madly in love. No worries, no responsibilities. I gave English lessons at 1,000 Lira an hour. The little park opposite his property had been used for Orson Wells film 'A touch of evil' and so he was used to moving in cinema circles. Life was great. Then all hell broke loose.
One night I came back in the early hours of the morning to find I was barred from going upstairs to the flat by the night watchman. Pino's wife was upstairs and I could not enter. My world was immediately shattered. After she left, I crept upstairs and found Pino had been drinking heavily. He told me that she was putting pressure on him for me to leave or she would dump the children back on to him. She had split with her lover and wanted her husband back.
Pino told me that I had to leave the house, being spineless so it appeared and giving into her demands easily, he arranged for me to rent a room in a private pension in the Via Toscana, by the famous Via Veneto. A posh address but what did I care? He moved me in and stayed away. I never saw him again. I fretted, longed for him, lost weight, couldn't eat properly even though the Signora was a good cook and I was eating twice a day in her pensione, and suffered from insomnia. I was gauche in the affairs of the heart and found myself a pawn in a matrimonial game of chess. I had no reason to go out and stayed in bed all day depressed crying.
One morning I heard the Signora go out to do her daily shopping. I knew I was alone in the flat. The phone rang at the same time as the door bell. I stumbled out of bed and answered it. My head was in a spin through taking sleeping tablets. It was my friend Joy from Australia who was a PA at Paramount Films. I told her to wait while I answered the door. There looking elegant, wearing sunglasses and a white scarf over her black hair, was Laura, Pino's wife. How on earth had she found me I wondered? I went back to the phone and told Joy that the dreaded Signora Laura had arrived. After all I needed a witness.
Being inexperienced in a matrimonial triangle, I invited her into my room. Worse still I got back into bed! She sat down next to me and aggressively asked in Italian, "What are you going to do with my husband?" To which I replied, "None of your business". Upon which she leapt out of her chair and grabbed my throat squeezing it hard so that I was choking. My thought was "what a way to die in a little room in Rome". I struggled to get out of bed, got up and walked backwards to the bedroom door with Laura tugging at my long hair at the front. God that was painful! Somehow I managed to get out of the room, hysterical and in shock. She slammed the door on me leaving me in my bare feet and my nighty shivering in the cold marble hall. I then cried out loud for the first time in my life "Aiuto" (help) three times. All the neighbours came rushing down the stairs to see what the noise was about and of course to enjoy the scandal. Laura was smashing up the room because I could hear glass being shattered. I was crying hysterically with no one to comfort me. The Signora arrived back with her shopping and was not pleased to see the commotion on her doorstep. What a scandal for her reputable house! Calmly Laura appeared, complete with sunglasses, gliding down the marble stairs like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. I spat at her as she passed me and struck the sunglasses off her nose. They fell to the ground shattered like our relationship. I nerviously went back into my room to see the debris. I was crying when I rang Pino to tell him what had happened. He made no comment and gave me no words of comfort. Then I rang Joy and asked if I could stay.
My friends, Chris, Joy and Tonino (Fellini's personal chauffeur) sat by my bedside holding my hand. I was shaking all over and couldn't move my neck. I never thought to see a doctor for anti depressants. I stayed in the warmth of her flat and her friendship for a few days and then went back to the pensione.
It was my room no more. The Signora told me in no uncertain terms that only respectable women stayed at her pension. She must have informed the Police of my arrival because I was served with a Writ to attend the local police station that very day. Laura had denounced me for breaking up her marriage. I had to sign a statement that I would never contact Pino again. Not that I wanted to in any case. My opinion of Italian men was zero.
The scenario at the Police Station was horrific. I was taken into a sparse room where a policeman typed on an old black Remington with two fingers shifting the bar back and forth. The noise reverberated in the silence of the austere room.
"Did he promise to marry you?" he jeered. I was made to feel so guilty yet I had done nothing wrong. I was the victim, a stiupid lovestruck provincial British girl. I vowed never again to get involved with a married man and never have. "I see your visa is up in a week's time. I suggest you leave Italy. You're a lucky girl that I'm not stamping your passport 'refused entry'.
I had no reason to stay. No job. No future in Rome or Italy for that matter and no money. I telexed my father to send me a one way ticket back to England. He did, no questions asked then or ever.
The Italian chapter of my life had closed and I didn't speak Italian again for 20 years. Tonino, who never married and must have been in love with Chris throughout his life, phoned her every Christmas in England for forty years until his death. At some point when Divorce became legal in Italy, he told her that Pino finally divorced his wife.
Written May 2015, Buyuk Londra Hotel, Istanbul.