Her name was Serafina Clarke, and I met her through Santa Claus.
She died a few days ago, in the village of Gaucin in Andalusia, which she had belatedly made her home – quite a jump from Shepherd’s Bush; but nothing about her was ever entirely expected.
I still know very little about her – she had a way of deflecting questions or zooming off into other subjects. She was not a raconteur about herself, but about others. What I do know is this.
I was an aspiring writer. I was working at an ad agency, hating it, trying to get out by writing radio shows. One day I create to write a Christmas TV commercial, and I wrote one about a top people’s Santa Claus who delivers luxury goods down chimneys. I cast the marvellous George Baker (a fifties’ movie heartthrob who was in ‘The Dam Busters’ and who later became Inspector Wexford – he had nearly been James Bond), and took him to get an incredible Santa designer suit made at Tommy Nutter – then the only cool place to have a suit made.
We were the same size, and after the shoot he gave me the suit. He had (I think) five daughters and cooked for them all, and had written a cookery book and knew an agent, an old friend. I had written a terrible novel called ‘Gone With The Gin’ (not even a decent pun) and so George generously introduced me to his agent. Serafina was about six feet tall, plummy, ageless and rather terrifying. With her husband she had run the Fulham Road hipster joint Nick’s Diner back in the swinging sixties, so she knew everyone. She was always theatrical and dramatic, threw parties that always began with champagne cocktails (and one dinner that commenced with her announcing ‘I hope everyone likes whole kidneys served in their caul’).
She fought to get me published, first through silly comedy books, then via short stories and thence into novels. I was nurtured and encouraged to simply spend time with her and other writers. She threw dinners for all her authors, and would always sit you next to the least likely person you’d ever be likely to meet. She was argumentative, determined, brave, headstrong. She bought part of a horse, which was when I realised she was County. She remained my agent for many, many years.
After having an operation she decided to make a few changes. Being of impossible-to-determine age, she first had a lion rampant tattooed on a buttock, then left Shepherd’s Bush after a neighbour tried to burn her house down by firebombing her front garden. (‘Nothing really – just singed a fuschia,’ she dismissed the incident after). She threw a farewell party at the Swan restaurant at the Globe by St Paul’s and introduced me to the agent I stayed with ever after.
By a strange coincidence I must have met the owner of the Swan, who later turned out to be the son of my favourite Forgotten Author, about whom you’ll be able to read in October’s ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’. Serafina seemed to inspire unlikely connections.
I went to her village to find her. On the way to the airport, my London cabbie gave me advice about ex-pats. ‘You know how they spend their days?’ he asked. ‘Readin’ and drinking’. Readin’ and drinking’ an’ then they die.’
When I got to the village, I found her alone in the empty, baking town square with a bottle of red wine and a book. She had grown her red hair long and seemed younger than ever.
We went to a bullfight together where the Duchess of Alba was honouring the great Padilla, the matador who had been gored in the eyeball by his bull and went back into the ring once more. What transpired on his return was – to my amazement – surprisingly moving as he knelt before the bull and paid his respects.
I wrote a very thinly disguised version of Serafina, calling her Celestia, in ‘Nyctophobia’ and in ‘The Caterpillar Flag’, a short story which is in the new online collection ‘Frightening’. The part about the neighbour burgling her house is absolutely true.
I think she had a very good life because she had a very good attitude. Goodbye, Serafina.