Pasquale Schettini — tamer of lions

The following account was extracted from an early draft of The Novice.

While Mum was busy giving birth to all ten-and-a-half pounds of me, Dad was down on his knees at Saint Peter’s church in Gloucester praying that her third issue would be priestly material. Dad had been a bad Catholic for many years and was now craving pardon. I was his unborn offering.

Just how bad he’d been isn’t too clear, for he was intensely secretive about his early life. In response to my questions Mum just laughs quietly and says, “Well, he was quite the ladies’ man, your father,” as if that’s explanation enough.

Pasquale Schettini grew up in the toe of Italy and came of age in the nineteen-twenties, shortly after his father’s premature death, which did nothing for his family’s standing in the little town of Castrovillary. A picture of Pasqualino at age 17 shows a good-looking young man, only too arrogantly aware of the fact. He hated authority and escaped both the Mafia and the Catholics. But one day in Rome he ran into the Fascisti. Stopped on the streets by two blackshirt thugs who demanded to know whether he was with them or against them, he blurted out that he neither knew the difference nor really cared. They forced a bottle of castor oil down his throat and left him to ponder his politics while squatting over his vacating bowels. By the standards of the time and place it was a trivial incident, but it was the last straw for Dad, who rarely had anything complimentary to say about his country of birth thereafter.

Blacaman & Pascal

He sailed to South America and was met by his crazed-looking older cousin Blackerman, who made a living hypnotizing lions for circus crowds. Dad’s job was to go into the cages beforehand and whip the cats into a crowd-pleasing frenzy. He had the scars to prove it. He and Blackerman were apparently a couple of desperate kids who lived by their wits. Whatever I know of those days I learned from Mum, whom I’ve plied constantly for details, and who’s always happy to tell both her own stories and Dad’s, for he rarely told them himself.

Blackerman had a pretty French assistant, Koringa, who added a touch of melodrama by appearing suddenly in nurse’s uniform and dashing into the cage. Perhaps she assisted him outside the ring as well. When she and Dad became ‘friendly,’ as Mum puts it seventy-four years later, Blackerman and Koringa had a huge row and the latter returned to France. With equally evasive perambulation Mum tells me how a year or two later Dad happened by heavenly coincidence to be strolling through Paris when he came upon a seedy theatre. Looking at the poster of the featured alligator-and-python-hypnotizing-female-fakir act, he was surprised to see Koringa’s familiar face framed by a huge Afro wig. He took it upon himself to become her manager, build up the act and take it to the top of the bill in Bertram Mills’s circus.

After the war, Dad saw his circumstances straitened. No longer the fur-coated impresario he’d been in 1939, he broke up with his business partner, moved to Gloucester and bought a snack bar at the small city’s busiest bus stop. As he sliced his excellent sandwiches and worked sixteen-hour days, he vilified the Catholic Church without compunction. He was only one among many of his countrymen with such resentment. Certainly, the church would have preoccupied his Calabrian childhood both at school and at home, all the more so following his father’s untimely death. As for publicizing his feelings, perhaps being an Italian in post-war England, where nationalist feelings still ran high, he was just chattering self-consciously and trying to disown his past.


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