There is an unchecked force in the universe seeking out that moment when a few words, spoken innocently, will reverberate with intensity far beyond their intent. Lorenz suggested that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a tornado in Texas – without truly intending himself for those words to have their later import.
Our favourite Italian restaurant in Northbridge, many years ago moved premises and its new décor was both lush and intriguing. Papa still sat by the front door, complete with slippers. Mama greeted you like long lost family and their old Nona sat at the back table endlessly polishing the silver. As you walked by, she would nod and greet you with her complimentary “Bella, Bella”.
Centered in the new restaurant were tables set with starched linen and heavy napkins. The cutlery gleamed and glasses sparkled. A well stocked bar invited you to perch on the high stools and enjoy a beer or a Campari and soda before your dinner.
A number of private dining booths had been created round two walls and these could be made completely private by unloosing the heavy red velvet curtains that showed, when drawn back, the luxurious leather seats inside. Big enough for six or eight, they were both intriguing and somehow a little daunting.
Robbie and I had dined often at both the old and the new and one night, for a family celebration, we entertained both his daughters and their husbands at the new restaurant. Mama made a great fuss of the two girls when we arrived and they were suitably impressed with our genial relationship with the proprietors of this opulent establishment. At the end of our dinner, they were given a guided tour of the luxurious amenities and their youthful beauty acknowledged by Nona’s traditional “Bella, Bella” and a big smile.
Upon our return to the table, as Karen gazed about wide-eyed, the universe anticipated the moment and held its breath. “Dad,” she said in her childlike voice, “is Uncle Jeffrey in the mafia, as well?”
The restaurant staff froze; not a sound was heard, from inside the booths or without. Robbie laughed into the silence. “You will have to ask him yourself, darling,” he said and gradually the sounds of normality began.
Our young waiter was suddenly replaced by a heavy, swarthy man with extraordinarily hairy arms, who told us he "was from Geelong" and wanted to know “is everything all right?” We assured him both the food and service were excellent and he treated us to a display of hospitality skills I have never seen repeated. He cleared our settings for six people by balancing them up his right arm, glasses included. The condiments were held in his fingertips and, with his left hand, he flipped and replaced the tablecloth, returned the condiments and took everything else to the kitchen. We were awestruck.
On his return with fresh glasses for each of us, he was (not too discreetly) stationed behind our table for the remainder of the evening. While we lingered over our final wine and beer, excellent coffee and rich chocolates, the occupants of several of the booths emerged from their seclusion and nodded respectfully in our direction. Robbie was known to flash a look which made my friend Denise suggest he knew twenty ways to kill you before he even thought about it. It was probably the look that triggered his nickname of "Growly Granddad", too.
Unbeknown to Karen, Uncle Jeffrey was a regular patron there in his own right and, never failing to be greatly amused by her innocent remark, Robbie and I continued in later years to idle away many an hour in that restaurant.
Uncle Jeffrey was, in fact, Robbie’s cousin and Jeffrey Howlett – the internationally famous Architect. Sadly he passed away in 2005 – but it was wonderful to read a review of Perth’s architectural winners and losers, in The West Australian on 18th October 2008, which included a copy of his obituary..
Two of the three winners (buildings with great architectural merit) listed in the review are the inspirational designs of Uncle Jeffrey – the Perth Concert Hall and Council House.
His vision for Perth, designed in the 1960’s, is still fresh, exciting and shows his consumate skill in balancing open space with exquisite design. We miss you, Uncle Jeffrey.
You can read his obituary here Jeffrey's Obituary