New York, July 2017.
A few delightful days in Paris and Barcelona restored my serenity. No more searing heat, the weather more temperate, heavy clouds bursting over us. The rain washing away the last of the red, Andalusian dust. Well dressed men, once again, to look at on the streets. Mary’s spare room, decorated with Honiton lace and embroidered white linen. We walk the length of Parc St Cloud with our dogs wearing gun boots and waxed jackets. The Little Dog is almost fully restored, his eye closes once again, his sagging jowl looks perfectly normal to those who do not know. One evening we helped friends of Mary move house. TV Producer Etienne Alban, recently separated from his wife and kids, moving in with his super cute… yoga instructor girlfriend. Alban and I carried a huge sofa six flights to their huge new attic apartment. After the exercise we enjoyed a wonderful dinner at The Hotel Edgar. Their boudin noir… superb.
The following day I drove from Paris to Chamonix listening to an audio recording of the novel 1984. It is a compellingly joyless book. Because I am a ditz I arrived a day early. So I booked the Hotel Isabelle and slept fitfully thinking about my time in Carmona. More specifically I dreamt about my Carmona host and friend Ana Corbero, the chatelaine of an 11 acre estate called The Pajarita nestled outside the old city walls of Carmona beneath the The Hotel Parador and the Cordoba Gate. I dreamt a huge storm roared as I looked north from Ana’s terrace toward the great plain which was once the sea. I was pointing at something. “Land ahoy!” In the dream the waves returned after a thousand years and swept over the fields of sunflowers. Sea monsters curled out of the petulant waves then crashed into the salty foam.
My time in Carmona with Ana had been stormy, her demeanor quite different from the beautiful girl I chanced upon 35 years ago.
I met Ana Corbero in 1985 or thereabouts introduced by gallerist and curator Celia Lyttleton. Ana was showing a collection of unremarkable paintings at the Albemarle Gallery. Celia introduced her as the daughter of a well-known Spanish sculptor, the girlfriend of a Lord. She was tiny… gamine, scarcely a women. Her queer and marvelous features delicately carved and flocked, her fierce and sparkling black eyes challenging those of us who dared contradict her. She demanded respect. Her flamenco gestures, her delicate collar bones. She was beautiful.
I don’t remember a great deal about the beginning of our friendship other than the first night at the gallery.
Ana had been enjoying a fractious relationship with the absurdly handsome Colin Campbell, 7th Earl Cawdor. I do not remember them visiting me in Whitstable but apparently they did. I do not remember going to Wheelers Oyster Bar and eating crab but apparently we did. I do remember Ana’s invitation to Brooklyn the following summer where I stayed in Colin’s huge apartment, the top floor of an abandoned school he and another had recently bought. It was located just over the Williamsburg Bridge. Brooklyn was very different then. Crack addicts sat on the stoop. The Puerto Rican community had not been replaced by Hasidic Jews and dumb looking hipsters. The sky at night was regularly lit by flaming, abandoned buildings. Some called these arson attacks: Jewish lightning.
The walk into Manhattan over the Williamsburg Bridge felt unnecessary. We stayed close to the apartment. Colin and I had a fairly raucous time. Even then I felt contempt for toffs but they had all the best toys so one tended to accept the invitations whenever they came. It was an eventful trip. I had a brief affair with the artist Paul Benney. I threw a bbq from the roof of Gerard Malanga’s apartment*. We were the only white people at an African-American block party and ended up in a black police captain’s humble house. He looked very uncomfortable. Years later, I understand why. White, english people badly educated about slavery or the history of black people in the USA. We must have seemed very disrespectful.
Ana and Colin’s relationship was passionate and destructive. I blamed Colin for his insensitivity toward Ana. I excused Ana her eccentricities. The last image I have of her at that time: Ana is resting serenely in a nest of pillows, she has written in pen on her forehead one word… SILENCE.
Years passed. Many years. I remembered the word scrawled on her face. Social media reintroduced us. She married Nabil Gholam an arab architect and 18 years ago they had a baby girl. Sadly, their child is badly disabled with a rare genetic disease. Against the odds, the child survives. Ana fought to make her daughter hear and see. She refused to accept the doctor’s bleak prognosis. Ana lived in Beirut during the Israeli bombardment. Breastfeeding on her balcony as the bombs fell. She adopted two more children. A boy and a girl, both Lebanese. The architect became successful. They bought apartments in London, Paris and Seville. When her grandparents who raised her died she bought the Pajarita with a small inheritance. The Pajarita, a modest finca surrounded by acres of scorched, brown earth and rock where the locals dumped their trash. Ana set to transforming this barren place with many gardeners into the paradise she and her family enjoy today.
During the years I suggested to traveling friends I knew to be in Spain… meet Ana. I sent the lazy, derivative Australian furniture designer Charles Wilson who I believed might benefit creatively from a stint in Andalusia. But Charles, another terrible drunk, ended up being thrown out of Xavier Corbero’s house in Barcelona because Ana’s step mother hated him. Charles refused to leave so Ana’s husband threatened him with gypsies (a common, vaguely racist, threat from Nabil) who would break Charles’s legs if he didn’t pack his bag and leave immediately.
I sent Jenna and Stephen Mack’s brother John Jr., son of billionaire Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack. Even though I did not know John Jr. I trusted they would be a great fit. That introduction worked out very well. Now it was my turn to meet Ana. We communicated solely by text message. After the long drive from Nice I called her and, for the first time in 35 years, I heard her voice. The deep and rasping voice of somebody who smokes too many cigarettes or talks too much… or both.
“Why do you want to see me?” She asks over the phone.
I did not have an easy answer.
There was unfinished business between Ana and me. It was not tangible, it was esoteric. I had no expectations of Ana. I simply wanted to see her face. Without the word SILENCE scrawled on it. We might have met that afternoon, had a coffee and left it at that. I would have driven north. I had no idea what to expect but I was compelled to see her, meet her again. We arranged to meet at the small apartment she rented for guests in Carmona.
“How do you like your new digs?” She said as she got out of her huge silver Mercedes.
“Stay as long as you like.”
I gave her a long hug. Her father, Xavier Corbero, had recently died. I sniffed and she thought I was crying. “I’m not crying,” I said, “I’m sniffing.” Ana was back in my life. Her face was not the same as I remembered when I last saw her. She has hidden herself on social media because, I now understood, she could not bear what age had done to her. Almost immediately she complained how old she was, how raddled. She was embarrassed by her face.
“I’ve turned into a middle-aged Swedish woman.” she said. “I hope you’re not disappointed.”
It was true. Middle aged and middle class. Her face, bloated and pale, almost anemic. Her dry hair, she insisted she wanted to dye gray, streaked with sun bleached golden locks. Her eyes were just as fiery but no longer black. There was something stone dried about her, something suspicious. I slowly recognised who she had become. The reason I felt compelled to see her? The reason why so many years ago she left something indelible in me? It was something I recognized in myself. Within a few hours my suspicions were confirmed. Ana Corbero is an alcoholic of the most desperate kind.
We walked up the small cobbled hill from the apartment to the Casa Curro Montoya… her favorite restaurant. She flamboyantly kisses the owners and lavishes us all with praise. We sat in the hot sun and drank white wine and ate greasy jamon. Immediately, without prompting, she started telling me how her marriage was over. Her husband was a liar, she said, and she didn’t know if she could stay married to him.
“He lies about his father and their relationship. I am married to a stranger.”
I was baffled why this should be reason for divorce but Ana, it turns out, is obsessed with her version of the truth. Under the parasol that dreamy afternoon I found her deeply personal over sharing electrifying. I was being inducted into a tortured world of intrigue and family drama… it felt intoxicating. She contemptuously described her adopted children, how her lazy teen son lied and failed at school. Her pre teen daughter stole and refused to respect her Mother’s authority. I ask about their eldest daughter. “Oh, her.” she mused distantly. A slight smile flickered over her face. “She’s an angel.”
I do not remember driving to the Pajarita that afternoon. I drove to her home so many times the next few weeks. It is a dusty, pot holed road to Ana’s home. Red dust gets into everything, into the car, my mouth, my heart. During my stay the sharp red rocks rip into my tyres… twice. Yet, once behind the sliding metal gates of the Pajarita… decorated with dragons and comic strip birds there is… the illusion of calm. Beyond the painted blue iron gate a forest of pepper trees, oleander and citrus. Terracotta pots filled with herbs and lilies. Vines, dripping with grapes grow over pergolas affording shade, respite from the searing heat. Down an exquisitely cobbled path the simple house reveals itself. There are huge windows covered with traditional Spanish blinds made of esparto… woven reeds. Inside, rooms of various sizes at different levels filled with stuff. Ana’s art covers the walls. Piles of art books and catalogues from Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Broken china knickknacks. Buckets of architectural salvage. Most of it inherited from her grand parents. So much stuff.
Many staff run Ana’s estate and life. Annie the housekeeper and general fixer. Three nurses look after the disabled daughter. There are gardeners and flamenco guitarists, a governess for the adopted daughter and a masseur who comes daily. On occasions Ana would marshal the staff and demand they sing songs of her own composition. They did as they were told.
Annie, a simple local woman and (it became apparent) loathed by the son… was Ana’s most trusted servant. As well as dusting, ironing and making beds Annie, Ana told me, was being groomed to write Ana’s autobiography and mix her paints whenever she started painting again. Annie would also run the restaurant whenever Ana got around to opening it. Annie, forced to kiss us all as per the ‘Andalusian way’.
I refused to kiss Ana’s staff.
“I can’t bear lies or exaggeration.” Ana says. “I am never impatient, I am never angry.”
During the first few days of my stay we find a happy routine. I have practical considerations. I apply for my Spanish residency, open a bank account and get a phone. I take the dogs to the vet in Seville. The vet is quite the most handsome man I ever met. I decide to buy a house in Carmona. They are cheap and plentiful. Ana is incredibly helpful. She introduces me to a lawyer, a realtor and makes every effort to ease me into Spanish life. We find a perfectly preserved 16th Century house near the Cordoba Gate. I need an assistant. She introduces me to Jose, her own assistant for five years but curiously tells me he is not welcome at her home.
“He needs to pull his head out of his ass.”
Why she makes the introduction to Jose is a mystery. And why is he unwelcome at the Pajarita? Jose is a good man. Friendly and helpful. I confide in Jose. I am shocked by the way Ana treats her children, the contempt she has for her husband. I rant at Jose about Ana. She believes she’s always right, she’s never wrong, the interminable interruptions at dinner so conversations between adults become utterly fruitless and frustrating. Ana interrupts with shrill, ill-informed dissent. Blighted with a remarkable lack of insight and self-awareness Ana’s inability to see her part in any dispute caused me much incredulity.
Jose smiles and listens.
“I don’t have a problem, YOU have a problem.” Ana insists.
Three days into my visit Nabil arrives with their son. They are very pleasant but I have already had my mind poisoned against them. Expecting the worse I’m surprised to find her husband kind and considerate, compensating for his wife’s excesses. He is a gentle man and every day works hard to keep his marriage alive. Nabil shows me his watch collection, explaining how he transports his wealth around the world at times of war. In the evening, when she is at her worse, Nabil makes excuses for her rapidly disintegrating behaviour.
Their son is a perfectly ordinary teenage boy. He has a girlfriend, he has thick black hair, he is interested in sport and fashion and making money trading sneakers… we went to the fashion outlet in Seville but it was closed. He was funny and charming. House hunting one morning I paid him to translate for me. He has a keen understanding of people. He could read between the lines. He enjoys his life at boarding school.
I find him in his room trying to write. Ana has asked him to imagine a fifty year life plan. He looks helpless. An absurd request the teenager knows he must fulfill. When, after several weeks, the 50 year plan arrives Ana is outraged. Why does the plan does not include Spain and by inference… her? Why should it? Ask a boy to map out the next fifty years is abuse enough. But this was just one of many abuses, her plan to punish him for not appreciating how lucky he was that she had taken the time and money to adopt him. He could never be grateful enough. She confided that she planned to take him out of the boarding school he loved and punish him for his lack of sensitivity by sending him to his paternal grandfather… who Ana hated. Nabil, when we are on our own, desperately whispers an appeal to me,
“Please help me, can you make her see sense?”
It was no use, Ana is always hell-bent on revenge, riven by some resentment for some poor sap. Ana reminded both her children how lucky they were to have her as their adopted mother. These scenes pulled straight out of the movie Mommy Dearest. But Joan Crawford, bless her tortured soul, was a saint in comparison.
We drive to Seville for lunch with John Mack Jr. who mocks Ana’s constant, inebriated interruptions. John Mack Jr has his own demons but I wanted to hear everything he had to say. I had been very close with his brother Stephen and worked with his sister Jenna. Both relationships had come to nothing. Of course John claims he knows nothing of his sister’s appalling arrogance… he is his father’s son. He knew everything. He had his own brush with addiction, a failed marriage and traumas only the son of a billionaire would understand. Stephen Mack told me once their father would say of his enemies, “I’ll make them hurt.” His father wasn’t called ‘Mack the Knife’ for no reason. Jenna was very eager for me to meet her parents but I knew it would turn out badly, getting dragged along to events I had no reason to be at. I met Mack senior, who one couldn’t help respecting, several times. I had dinner with Jenna and her father at The Mercer Hotel and again at a High Line charity event. Jenna, Stephen and John’s parents are a great team, they donate millions to charity, they delight in taking pictures of couples in the street who don’t have selfie sticks.
I knew my father was the same as John Mack. Cruel and kind in equal measure.
When I said goodbye to John Mack Jr. after lunch (he cycled off into the hot, congested Seville streets) I knew I would never meet him or any member of his family ever again.
As I grow closer to my assistant Jose it becomes apparent that he doesn’t merely dislike Ana, he hates her. He hates her with a shocking vengeance. It is painful for him to carry such hate in his heart. He warns me to think carefully about staying in Carmona, he cautions if I buy a house in Carmona I will end up hating Ana. He warns me people very close to Ana hate her. The owners of the restaurant hate her, he warns she has fallen out with everyone who lives in Carmona, accusing them of crimes and disappointments, their relationships blighted with unrealistic expectations.
Jose describes Ana’s tantrums, how she would regularly reduce him to tears with her demands and mendacity. His impersonation of her clawing at her own face demanding she wanted what she wanted… NOW! Nothing would placate her. He tried helping her but failed. He still finds it hard to forgive himself for walking away. Walking away from the children he loved and cared for.
I took the adopted girl to meet Jose. They hadn’t seen each other for years. They cried and hugged. We wandered the streets of Carmona until midnight. Jose kept thanking me for bringing her to see him. We ate ice cream and sat in the forum. When we returned to the Pajarita Ana looks quizzically at me. Taking the child to meet Jose could be construed as an act of betrayal. I apologize for bringing her home so late.
The following day Ana is screaming at her children, “Why don’t you bring your friends to the Pajarita?” It is obvious why… to those of us who are the children of abusive parents. There’s shame and fear around alcoholism and the unpredictability of an alcoholic parent. Neither child want their friends to meet Ana. Neither want to explain her behaviour. I saw the fear in their eyes when Ana looked as if she was going to lose her temper. The night she couldn’t make the ancient iPod work and began blaming her daughter. The panicking child wrestled with the iPod, willing it to work. Finally she managed to make it play and disaster was averted. I’m sure the little girl didn’t want to be reminded once more why she should be grateful Ana adopted her and how easily she could be sent back to the children’s home.
The daughter dances, she entertains Ana’s guests with gymnastics, endless cartwheels and overtly sexual dance moves she learns from TV shows like Glee. Playing the same track over and over. I was asked to judge endless dance routines. She was desperate to impress. Yet, however hard the child tries to please… it is never good enough.
“Hold your hands like this” Ana demands. “No! Not like that… like this.” Ana lunges beside her daughter and demonstrates what she wants to see. Ana demands we all dance. I dance for a moment then I sit down and watch the scene unfold. The dance with her daughter becomes violent, twirling the child around until finally it is no longer a dance but a fight… Ana body slams the girl onto the floor. The child is crying and Ana falls badly into the television. She mocks the child for crying, mocks her use of a hearing aid. She swears at the child and accuses her of making sexual advances to Nabil. Once, in the pool, Ana tore off the child’s bathing costume, tossing it out of the pool. Ana is laughing like a maniac, the child is pleading. I throw the costume back into the pool. Then I walk away, saving the kid the embarrassment of being seen naked. Jose, when I tell him… is not surprised. There were times when he wanted to report her to the police for child abuse. The following day Ana wonders why her back hurts so badly. I remind her but she doesn’t remember the fight. She has no recollection. How much of the time is she blacked out?
“Time for drinkypoos?” She says.
Like an infirmed english aristocrat the pronouncement comes when Nabil is at home… otherwise she’s opening bottles all day. She’s already stoned long before she starts drinking. I learned not to go near the house until she is drunk or stoned enough not to be a total bitch. Waiting for an invitation to join her. If I stayed at the Pajarita I would slip away before she woke up. When her interest in me cooled her morning emails and text messages were filled with vile insults and personal attacks. By then I was employing every technique Alanon afforded me. Let go with love, they say. Every day I let her go… with love. Soon I would have to let go of her forever.
The night Nabil left for London and Beirut I was sitting by the pool with Ana enjoying a rare, balmy evening. We spent a lot of time talking about her future, her work, galleries and retrospectives. I was convinced she was capable of making the huge changes in her life necessary for her to be recognised as an important artist. We talked about male artists who were commanding huge sums in galleries and at auction. We discussed how women artists have been impoverished by men. After meeting her disabled daughter my understanding of her work swelled. The cute sculptures of girls looking heavenward meant something. Ana has spent years working out her feelings toward her disabled daughter using her art, especially her sculpture. Her work, like so many women… unlike the work of so many men, has never been contextualized. The story is never told. “Your work is beyond the vagina.” I said. She laughed. Ana is not easily complimented. So, we concentrate on her potential. I liked mulling over future possibilities with her.
Without warning she rolled toward me and laid her head on my chest.
She said, “I find you overwhelmingly attractive. I want to grow old with you.”
At that very moment I knew our friendship was over. I shifted in my seat. If I rebuffed Ana I risked her unconscionable wrath. She repeated the words.
“I want to grow old with you.”
Finally, I affected my most affable self and said,”Oh, silly… what would Nabil say?”
She lifted her head. She was not going to be fobbed off with that.
“I don’t put my head on anyone’s chest.” She began, her voice becoming defensive. She continued speaking but I could not hear her… I was in a blind panic. I knew it was over, at that moment I knew my time around Ana had come to an end.
The following days she called me names by text (fat and old) and generally took time to insult and belittle me. She denounced me as a traitor to the Pajarita. I found myself drifting to the house knowing full well what reception I would receive. She warned me, I was no longer ‘drama free’ I was accused of bringing stress and ‘baggage’ into her life. Thankfully, her friend Alfonso and his daughter arrived. Perhaps he would grow old with her? I slipped out of the pre arranged parties to which I was tacitly expected to attend. I had no interest in being around her. It was over. Soon I was packing up the car and headed north. My time in Carmona but not Spain… had come to an end.
Ana Corbero signs all her emails or text messages with ‘Luv and Light A xxx’. It is ironic because she has a dark soul. A monster for whom no cage will ever be built… unless of course she embraces sobriety and thereby solves her chronic addiction to resentment.
*Recently I bumped into Gerard Malanga, frail and limping, in a small French cafe on Warren Street in Hudson, New York and apologised for my drunken indiscretion all those years ago. Although furious at the time he sweetly claimed not to remember the incident.