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Authors: Lady Colin Campbell

Empress Bianca

BOOK: Empress Bianca
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Praise for
The Real Diana:

 

‘You’ve really caused a stir with this book!’ -
Richard & Judy

 

‘Explosive … The most sensational book of the year’ –
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‘Startling new revelations from the woman who has written the headline-making biographies about Princess Diana-astonishing’ –
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‘Britain is buzzing about The Real Diana’ –
Victoria Mather, The Early Show, CBS News

 

‘Some Palace watchers note that she has an impressive roster of well-placed contacts and credit her with writing the most believable Diana biography’ –
People Magazine

 

‘Lays bare the facts about Diana’s affair with James Hewitt and the reasons for Diana’s death in 1997’ –
Evening Standard

 

‘Bombshell revelations by Lady Colin Campbell, the former wife of a cousin of the Queen of England’ –
Ireland on Sunday

 

‘A tribute to a truly remarkable and outstanding woman’ –
Later Living

 

‘Lady Colin Campbell is a highly successful and prolific author, most famous for her two biographies of Diana, Princess of Wales’ –
Sarah Wicker, chatshow.com

 

‘If you are maintaining a Diana library, Lady Colin Campbell’s books are now must haves’ –
Royal Book News

Empress Bianca

A Novel by

Lady Colin Campbell

This book is dedicated to my sons
Dima and Misha.

W
hen your mother is reputed to be one of the richest widows on earth, and you know that she ranks alongside Catherine the Great when it comes to getting away with murder, you tread carefully. Very carefully. Even when you are telephoning to offer her your congratulations.

In Mexico, it is four o’clock in the morning. Pedro Calman Barnett has been to a party given by his sister-in-law, Dolores, and this being Mexico City, he has had a fair amount to drink. He isn’t even tipsy, however. Just relaxed. Should he call his mother or shouldn’t he? He toys with the idea. There are pros and cons either way, and he turns them over in his mind while getting undressed.

Meanwhile, in the eight-bedroom house she has rented on Carlisle Square in London, his mother Bianca Mahfud is just awaking on the day for which, in some ways, she has spent her whole life preparing. Today is the day that will mark the culmination of her dreams and ambitions, when her status will finally be recognized beyond dispute by the only people who truly matter to her.

This evening, in the piazza at Brunswick House, one of the former royal palaces situated near Richmond by the Thames, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother is scheduled to unveil the brass plaque dedicating the massive Henry Moore sculpture, which Bianca Mahfud has bought for a reputed £4,000,000 - although actually costing less than quarter of that amount, the price having been inflated by Bianca’s public relations people - and donated to the British nation in memory of her late husband, the billionaire banker Philippe Mahfud.

As the soft morning light eases its way into the room, Bianca unhurriedly savours the anticipation of her moment of glory, with patience born of the knowledge that satisfaction is assured and cannot be denied. The wait, Bianca knows, will only heighten the pleasure.

The telephone rings, but Bianca does not answer. It is many years since she has answered her own telephone. The ultimate practitioner of the luxurious arts, a quintessential devotee of gracious living, Bianca would never dream of answering her own telephone. To do so would be to defeat the purpose of her carefully constructed lifestyle, one so lulling, so captivating, so seductive, that those who have fallen under its spell include kings, presidents, first ladies, princes, princesses, servants, lovers, family, lawyers and of course, billionaires. Especially billionaires.

The telephone gives one discreet buzz: her signal to pick up the receiver.

‘Hello,’ Bianca says. Her voice is deep, lush and soothing, like molasses flowing over rocks. Her accent, clear even after one word, is that elegant combination of British, American and the indefinably foreign that is so characteristic of the upper reaches of the International Set.

‘Hi Mama, how are you?’

Pedro. The dreaded Pedro. Pedro who was always trouble, even as a little boy, who would always take the side of the servants and level judging eyes at his mother when she was only trying, in her own mind at any rate, to run an organized household and provide a certain standard of comfort for her family.

‘Oh, hello Pedro,’ Bianca says in that sugary tone which, Pedro knows, is reserved for those she feels threatened by. ‘How kind of you to call. It must be the middle of the night where you are.’

Pedro knows that she does not like him. That he discomfits her. That even the sound of his voice makes her retreat into the burnished shell with which she covers herself at will. A polished shell of charm. Of such superficial and empty correctness that it feels as if she is consulting some guide to etiquette and enacting its recommendations with feeling but no heart. Pedro cannot remember a day when he ever thought that his mother felt anything but uncomfortable in his presence.

‘I rang to wish you luck on your big day,’ Pedro says, torn as always between the pleasure of witnessing his mother squirm and the natural tendency of a son who wants the one thing he has always been deprived
of: his mother’s love.

‘Thank you, Pedro,’ Bianca says, her tone losing some of its reserve.

‘You must be very excited.’

‘I am. I am. This really is the most wonderful day of my life. Imagine, the Queen Mother no less unveiling Uncle Philippe’s statue then coming to dinner afterwards. What a coup.
Toute Londres
will be here.’

Bianca has such spontaneous charm and energy when she lets her guard down that Pedro finds himself responding to the thrilling quality which is a natural feature of his mother’s magnetic personality. Caught as he is by an attraction towards someone he is fully aware he must guard against, Pedro understands that Bianca also suffers her share of conflict because of him. She is a Jewish mamma, a Mediterranean mamma; she cannot quite bring herself to be indifferent to her own flesh and blood.

‘What a pity Uncle Philippe can’t be here this evening,’ she says, sending Pedro hurtling down another byway. ‘He’d be so proud.’

Pedro can hardly believe that his mother has just uttered those words. Philippe Mahfud would be proud indeed to witness the wife who arranged his murder glorifying herself with his money by presenting a statue in his memory to a nation where he never lived and about which he cared nothing. Just so she can enter the portals of royalty and snag herself a prince or duke in her ever-upward quest. Even though Pedro has his mother’s measure as few others do, he is nevertheless so taken aback by her comments about Uncle Philippe that he is lost for words.

Pedro can almost hear Bianca, ever sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others, listening to the silence.

‘Well, don’t you think Uncle Philippe would be proud of your mother?’ she asks, the sugar in her voice returning as her guard rises again.

‘Anything you say, Mama.’

‘Anything I say? What is this? Did you call just to bait me?’

‘No. I called to wish you well.’

‘Then why are you making yourself so disagreeable?’

‘I’m not making myself disagreeable. I haven’t said anything.’

‘You can’t play dumb with me, Pedro. I’m your mother. I gave you life and I love you, but I’m also onto you. I know what’s in your mind, and I have to tell you I didn’t think it was funny the first time you came up with your crackpot theory nor do I think it’s funny now.’

‘Listen, I really didn’t call to upset you. I only wanted to let you know
I’m thinking of you.’

‘You know, Pedro, you could’ve been here with us this evening. Don’t ever stop to think how much it breaks your poor mother’s heart to know that she can’t ever have all her children with her at one time… because I can’t rely on you? It’s bad enough what you’ve done to yourself, but what about what you’ve done to me and to your brother and sister? I want you to think about that. Think about how much happier our family would be, if we could all share things together.’

‘There’s no winning with you, Mama, is there?’

‘This isn’t a race, Pedro. This is life. Take my advice and try to loosen up a little. Now get some sleep. We’ll all be thinking of you tonight when Queen Elizabeth unveils the Henry Moore. Bye-bye and thanks for calling,’ Bianca says, and rings off.

 

The Connaught is Antonia Najdeh’s favourite hotel. Ever since she first stepped off the pavement at Carlos Place in Mayfair and into the foyer, smelling the beeswax with which the wood is polished, she has loved the place and used it as a benchmark for measuring tone. To her, the Connaught is also a repository of treasured memories. Her first stepfather, Ferdie Piedraplata taking her to Sunday lunch for some of the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding that is a renowned specialty of the house. Princess Grace of Monaco, at the pinnacle of her glamour and beauty, gliding out of the lift into the foyer in a rose-pink ball gown, the silk rustling as she and Prince Rainier make their way to their waiting car for the short ride to Buckingham Palace, where The Queen is hosting a prenuptial ball for Princess Anne. The pride as Princess Grace stops and says to the young girl who always, but always, comes a poor second within the family circle to her adored older brother Julio: ‘Aren’t you Caroline’s little friend from St. Mary’s?’

Bianca Mahfud’s only daughter, Antonia can still feel how she glowed and grew within herself as she saw the head porter look at her kindly, noting the Princess of Monaco’s acknowledgement that she is someone of consequence and not just the also-ran who is always in Julio’s shadow in the family circle. That moment of recognition might have been a small and insignificant incident of kindness to Princess Grace, but to Antonia it was the boulder upon which the river of her life changed course.

Antonia gazes at her five children and Leila Barnett, her aged
grandmother, and smiles. Her expression reflects her contentment as they breakfast together, having flown in from their respective homes in Cuernevaca and Beirut for the big night. Unlike many of her peers, Antonia appreciates how lucky she is. She does not have troubles like her brother Pedro. She is happily married to Moussey Najdeh, the scion of one of Lebanon’s richest Jewish families, with whom she lives in a palatial villa beside the Bay of Jounieh where St George slew the Dragon. She has four children of her own as well as raising her brother Julio’s child, Biancita, as if she were her own. Uniquely, she gets along with everybody within the family circle and is still alive: a state she does not take for granted, having seen two stepfathers die tragically and a brother be as good as dead before her.

Antonia’s grandmother notices her smile. ‘Happiness is a wonderful thing, eh, Antonia?’ Bianca Mahfud’s mother speaks in that heavy Arabic-Spanish accent which conflicts completely with the remnants of her Slavic-like beauty, still visible even at the great age of ninety-seven.

‘One never needs to explain anything to you, Granny. You can always read what’s on people’s minds.’

‘My greatest joy is to look through your eyes and see what I hoped for when I was your age. Sadly, with me it was not to be. At least, not after we came to Mexico, and Bianca moved up in the world when she married your father. I think it’s a terrible thing when a child is ashamed of her parents because they’re middle-class, and she pretends to her friends that they’re aristocrats. At least your father always made us feel welcome. He’s a good man, your father.’

‘But things were all right between you and Granny before she met Daddy, weren’t they?’

‘Oh yes. That was during the war.’ Leila never referred to it as the Second World War. ‘Mexico wasn’t the country it now is. It was sleepy. Really colonial. Grandpapa and I were making our way in the world.’ Leila breaks off to laugh with Antonia, who understands the underlying message: you can never acknowledge around Bianca Mahfud that the Barnett family ever had to make their way in the world.

‘In those days, it was easier than it is now for Europeans to arrive and get established. Grandpapa was always an ambitious man. He worked hard, and he encouraged me to get out and meet people. He understood in a way I didn’t how good for business it was for us to get into the right
circles. With his English accent and what he used to call my “exotic” background, he got us accepted in solid, middle-class circles. We weren’t high society, but we had a very nice life. A villa in a good area. Three servants. And while he worked as a surveyor, I solidified our position socially. We worked as a team, you see. He insisted that I go to every coffee morning, lunch and tea party I was asked to, provided, of course, that the invitations were from the sort of people he wanted us to mix with. I can’t pretend I didn’t enjoy myself. It was a lovely life. All those canasta afternoons. Those meetings of the Women’s Club, with all the smart ladies dressed to kill in hats, gloves and furs. Yes, fox furs were all the rage then, and we used to wear our fair share.

‘Your Mamma was the first baby to survive. I’d had three miscarriages and two stillbirths before her, so you can imagine how much she was loved.

‘Of course, in those days, ladies from the middle and upper classes didn’t spend as much time with their babies as you girls do nowadays. Maids were two a penny, to use one of Grandpapa’s favourite expressions, and the values of the age meant that we turned our children over to nannies and nursemaids and got on with our lives, establishing the family so that we had a good position among our peers. Your mother was ultimately able to benefit from that when it came time for her to marry. In those days, you must remember, the only career open to girls was to marry, and to marry as well as their parents could manage.’

‘Were you always so clear-sighted about your ambitions?’

‘Oh yes. There was nothing shameful about being refugees and about making your way in the world from scratch. At least, not in 1939 when we moved to Panama, and later, when we moved from there to Mexico. The world was in turmoil. Everyone except Neville Chamberlain, the English Prime Minister, expected war. We were among the lucky ones who were able to get out. We brought your mother up to be aware of how fortunate she was to have a comfortable life in a safe part of the world, and she certainly behaved as if she recognized that fact while she was growing up.’

‘I remember as a little girl thinking how happy you and Grandpapa were together,’ Antonia says.

‘We were. Like you and Moussey. Two lovebirds,’ she giggles, clutching herself in fond, almost embarrassed, memory of the fulfilling marriage she
had.

‘Granny was hot stuff in the old days,’ Ramsi, her younger grandson, interjects, chewing toast and marmalade. The other grandchildren laugh.

‘I suppose I was,’ Leila says as Antonia raises a finger and scolds, fondly but firmly: ‘No talking with your mouth full.’

‘This is not the beach at Acapulco. This is a dinner table,’ Yasmine, the youngest child, mimics her mother. ‘Or a breakfast table, at any rate.’

‘Don’t interrupt your great-grandmother,’ Antonia says as she joins in the laughter.

‘The one thing we’ve been lucky to have in our family,’ Leila says, ‘is an example of happy marriages. I am a firm believer that the only people who ever have happy marriages are those who have experienced happy marriages in their own family life. I know that sounds ironic, taking into account the things people say about your mother, but you have to hand it to her: she knows how to keep a man happy as long as she wants to keep him.’

BOOK: Empress Bianca
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