Married in April 1978 in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Annulled in 1984
The Argentine Consulate was in a three-storey redbrick terrace in Hans Crescent just behind Harrods. The tweedy, middle-aged woman at the reception desk informed me in her clipped Received Pronunciation accent that ‘No, I did not need a visa to visit Argentina’ and ‘Yes, I was entitled to an Argentine passport by reason of birth.’ So I filled in the forms, had my photograph taken in the nearby designated photographers and paid the fee. A few weeks later in May 1977, I returned and collected my brand spanking new Argentine passport. I booked some leave for October, flew down to Buenos Aires on a British Caledonian DC10 and queued up at Immigration with a big smile on my face. My Spanish was non-existent, I had nowhere to stay and about U$S200 in cash in my pocket. But, I was home!
The stern-faced Immigration official flicked open my crisp new passport and stamped ‘Anulado‘. I gathered he was telling me that as it was issued abroad, my passport had to be renewed before I could use it again. Dolly, the lovely BCal reservation agent who sat next to me on the flight down, had given me the name of a clean cheap hotel in the city centre. I checked in and after a shower and a change of clothes went out to explore the city of my birth.
Unnoticed by me and most of the western world, on 24th March the previous year a military coup d’état backed by the United States had overthrown the presidency of Isabel Perón and installed a military junta to run the country. Right wing death squads such as the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance, the much-feared Triple A, roamed the streets in their olive drab Ford Falcons scooping up dissidents, students, trade unionists and anyone else who took their fancy. Of this I was totally ignorant as I strolled the leafy boulevards of Buenos Aires.
The hotel front desk told me I needed to go to the Central Police Station to renew my passport. I walked the few blocks, negotiated the heavily armed police at the entrance, queued up and after an hour or so a woman in a white coat sitting at a trestle table took my passport and barked, “Documentos” thrusting out her hand without looking up. I shrugged my shoulders, I didn’t have any documents. Realising she was dealing with an imbecile, she patiently explained I needed a cedula, an identity card issued by the Federal Police.
The next day, I made my way to the Federal Police Headquarters a few blocks away, queued up for a couple of hours and eventually found myself in front of an identical woman in a white coat sitting at a trestle table. I asked for my cedula, she asked for my DNI, my national identity document.
“I don’t have one,” I said.
She was amazed that a grown man did not have the document that every citizen carried from the age of sixteen and without which no official business could be transacted.
“You need to go to the Registro Civil with your birth certificate and register with them.”
Ah, at least I had my Argentine birth certificate!
After a glorious weekend of steaks and red wine and jacaranda trees in full blossom and tiny black coffees and beautiful women and handsome men with slicked back hair curling over their collars and unbearably noisy buses and nights that started at eleven and finished at four, I turned up at the Civil Registrar’s Office.
The trestle table was now a glass fronted counter but the queues were still the same. Eventually, I was seen by a kindly young woman who took my birth certificate, helped me fill in the numerous forms and told me to return in three weeks time to pick up my DNI.
I was aghast! I had to return to London and back to work. My two weeks leave was almost over.
She smiled sympathetically and shrugged, “Tramites“, Argentine for bureaucratic red-tape.
I returned to my hotel in despair. My dollars were nearly finished and my only credit card was an American Express. I found the British Embassy and, waving my British passport, asked for their help.
In no uncertain terms I was told I was not a British citizen whilst in Argentina and to leave the premises. The British Airways office downtown, a one man and his dog operation as BA didn’t fly to BA, agreed to inform London of my predicament. Meanwhile, I needed money and somewhere dirt cheap to stay. A hostal in scruffy San Telmo, threadbare sheets and a lavatory down the corridor, was dirt cheap and the American Express office cashed an emergency cheque on my overdrawn British bank account. I figured I would be home before the shit hit the fan.
I needed a job. The Berlitz School of Languages on Avenida de Mayo just up from the Casa Rosada hired me for my British accent which was preferred by some pupils. Knowledge of Spanish was not a requirement. From one hour classes of twenty odd pupils I soon graduated to the Intensive Course where I spent eight hours a day including an expenses-paid lunch with just one student. In my case it was Rodolfo, sponsored by the state oil company to study Geological Engineering at the University of Texas in Austin in six weeks time. By six o’clock in the evenings we were both exhausted.
My Spanish was improving but what was spoken in the street had no correlation with written Spanish. Everyone used Lunfardo or Argentine street slang in conversation. My fellow teachers in the staff-room were unintelligible when chatting amongst themselves. Mousie, a teacher of German, took pity on me.
“You need conversational Spanish,” she said. “I have a friend who will teach you in return for conversational English.”
“It’s a deal,” I said.
I knocked on the door of an apartment in a fading old building uptown which was opened by a young girl with huge, limpid brown eyes and tight jeans, smoking a cigarette in an ebony holder.
“Mike?” she asked in her deep throaty voice.
I nodded and swallowed. “Claudia?”
She invited me in to her grandfather’s apartment where she stayed during the week whilst studying Public Relations and Tourism at university.
My Spanish rapidly improved.
I finally collected my little DNI booklet from the Registro Civil and took it to the Federal Police Headquarters. There, after the usual half day wait, I was photographed and finger printed then ushered into a glass-fronted office where a huge man in military uniform with a fat belly was squashed behind a desk. He studied my file, stamped and signed various documents and told me my cedula would be ready in three days time.
I took my plastic cedula to the Central Police Station and asked for my passport back. Needed to make an appointment to see el jefe.
El jefe, another fat sweaty man in a bulging uniform, thumbed through my passport, my DNI booklet and flicked over my cedula then looked up.
“Colimba?” He raised an eyebrow. I said I had no idea what he was talking about.
“Servicio militar obligitario.” he explained. All Argentine males at the age of eighteen have to register for compulsory military service. Hence COrre, LIMpia, BArre, Run, Clean, Sweep.
I couldn’t leave the country without registering.
And when I did register they would ask why I was twelve years late in doing so.
And punish me.
Eighteen months service in the penal battalion. Winters in Ushuaia in the frozen south, summers in the Amazonian jungles of Jujuy in the north. My bowels turned to water. I left his office clutching my precious documents but not my passport.
Claudia decided to introduce me to her family in Almirante Brown out in the Province of Buenos Aires, a couple of hours by bus from the city centre. As we walked up the dirt road leading to her parents property I could hear a dog howling in the distance. Her father, a country surgeon with a military moustache and a cigarette in an ebony holder, was administering a vinegar douche to an Alsatian bitch that was being held on her back, legs apart, by Claudia’s brothers. She was on heat and had escaped the fence.
“Papa, this is my friend, Mike,” she said.
Without looking up from the dog he said, “Let this be a lesson to you young lady.”
Later, her brothers, Jorge and Billy explained to me how military service worked. There was a lottery in the March after your eighteenth birthday based on the last three digits of your DNI. If you were unlucky and you number was drawn you were called up for twelve months service in the army. Alternatively, you could volunteer for the Navy or Air Force where the food and conditions were better. Or you could just ride your luck and hope your number wasn’t called. As I had only just received my DNI I would have to wait until March next year for the lottery. Meanwhile, if I wanted to leave the country beforehand I needed permission from the military government. Fortunately, a patient of Claudia’s father was a brigadier in the Army. The doctor would approach him.
By now it was nearly Christmas. All flights from South America to Europe were fully booked. The weather was hot and sultry, the streets sticky and the nights stuffy and stifling. Claudia and I sat at pavement cafes chatting far into the evenings, making a single tonic water last for hours. She couldn’t come back to my hostal, I couldn’t stay in her grandfather’s apartment so we went to a telo, Lunfardo for a short-stay, pay-by-the-hour hotel. These are an Argentine institution. Most people live at home until they marry so finding somewhere to be alone with the one you love is difficult hence the telo. Clean, discrete and not expensive.
With permission to leave the country granted by the Brigadier as long as, on my honour, I would return for the sorteo or lottery, I contacted Dolly at BCal. Could she get me out on my British Airways staff travel standby ticket? So, that is how a British merchant seaman with a back injury was booked to fly from Buenos Aires to Rio on New Year’s Eve. At the last minute I took his place and arrived in Rio an Argentine and departed on the same flight as a British citizen again.
The tearful farewells and promises to come back soon made at the airport were nothing to the chaos and shambles that faced me when I got back to Hampton Wick. British Airways had placed me on unpaid leave so, without any salary coming in, the mortgage hadn’t been paid. The cheques to American Express had bounced and they were sending debt collectors after me. Irene had taken my MGB sports car in lieu of the money I owed her.
I struck a deal with my creditors. I would place the house on the market and pay them all back if they would give me some breathing space.
So, February started with no car, no house but no debts. I began to cheer up. My South American escapade seemed like a lovely distant dream.
The wake-up call was a telegram on St Valentine’s Day, telling me not ‘I am pregnant’ but ‘You are going to be a father.’ The image of Alpha the Alsatian with her legs spread wide filled my mind. Claudia couldn’t, wouldn’t, tell her parents even though abortions are illegal in Argentina.
I could just abandon her.
Or I could save her and our child. The only way I could fly Claudia out of the country was if she was my wife. I decided to marry her. The only problem was, I was still married to Magda, the Polish architect.
I consulted a firm of solicitors, paid them a thousand pounds and instructed them to start proceedings against Magda to have the marriage annulled on the grounds that it was never consummated.
If I went back to Argentina I would have to remain until after el sorteo at the end of March which meant losing my job. Claudia asked her father to help. I was sent a letter of introduction to the Argentine Naval Attache at the embassy in London. I went to see him and was shown into his impressive wood-panelled office overlooking the Thames. Handsome in his crisp white uniform with lots of gold braid, he read the letter and then asked how he could help.
I poured my heart out. My girl was pregnant. I wanted to marry her but if I went back I would be arrested for not returning in time for the sorteo. What to do?
He listened carefully, then reaching up behind his head, took down a thick book.
“Military Law,” he explained, leafing through the pages.
He found what he was looking for and slid the open book across the desk indicating the paragraph I was to read.
I walked back over Vauxhall Bridge, my eyes prickling in the Spring sunshine, a smile broadening with every step.
If, at the time of the sorteo, any conscript is married or about to be married, with a child, born or unborn, then he is automatically granted an amnesty from obligatory military service under Argentine Law.
With one mighty bound I was free!
Claudia was waiting in the light drizzle at Ezeiza Airport, looking tired and frightened as I stepped off the plane. She was wearing a thick jumper to hide the bump. The banns had already been posted so we married in a civil ceremony in the Registro Civil then again a few days later in a religious ceremony in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Buenos Aires. Her aunt was secretary to the Archbishop. After a short honeymoon in Mar del Plata where it rained every day, we flew back to Gatwick. On arrival the Immigration officer checked her passport and I told him we were just visiting. He gave her a six months visitors visa.
We drove up to Rat’s Castle, the converted stable block occupied by half a dozen post-graduate students at Oxford University. Ours was a large double room overlooking the Davenport’s manor house and above the enormous communal kitchen. This was half a mile from Richard and Debbie who had just given birth to Jack. I felt Claudia would be safe there surrounded by kind, educated people and near to her sister-in-law who was also a new mother. Now I could go back to work, slinging out trays and pouring tea and coffee with a clear conscience.
A letter from the firm of solicitors arrived. They had been unable to annul the marriage to Magda. The grounds for an annulment are ‘wilful refusal to consummate the marriage.’ As I never asked her to consummate it, she never refused. Case dismissed. Oh, and that cost a grand.
In order to marry Claudia in the Cathedral, which her mother so desperately wanted, I had decided not to mention that I was a previously married divorcee. And currently married to Magda. After all, my English marriage was not registered in Argentina and I was an Argentine getting married, not an Englishman. It never occurred to her to ask me if I had been married before when we were courting and it never crossed my mind to bring it up.
The baby was due in September but first I wanted Claudia to meet Ina and Godfrey. In June she joined me on a flight to Detroit and I dropped her off across the river in Windsor, Ontario. She was blooming and excited to be jetting around the world. Her English was improving but it was a relief to be able to relax with my parents and chat in Spanish. She still hadn’t told her own parents she was pregnant. She had a few days in New York on the way back and I was at Heathrow to greet after after 6 weeks in Canada.
“The Immigration officer says I don’t need a visa to stay in England. You just need to go to Lunar House in Croydon and they will give me permanent residency,” she said, her face wreathed in smiles.
I felt sick. She had thirty days leave to remain. We drove back to Oxford in silence.
By now we had moved down the lane to a picturesque little thatched cottage on the river, also owned by the Davenports. They were charging me a pepper-corn rent and I loved the peace and isolation. Claudia, a city girl, couldn’t stand the solitary loneliness, the lack of shops, the remoteness of it all. She spent more and more time with Debbie up the lane. I had to figure out a way of getting her residency sorted. The baby was less than a month away so flying was out of the question. I considered a short trip across the Channel to France but I had hardly any time off between trips.
With the clock clicking down and the deadline looming, I bundled her into the Jaguar and drove up to Croydon. It was a hot sunny day in mid August as we approached Lunar House. Claudia was wearing a flowing maternity smock and strappy sandals. I was sweating like a pig. The uniformed commissionaire at the door asked what our business was and before I could answer Claudia slipped on the tiles and fell, heavily pregnant, to the floor. He helped her to her feet. found her a chair and fetched her a glass of water. As she dried her tears, mostly shock but some embarrassment, I explained that I simply needed to complete the formality of permanent residence. He took our passports and disappeared. I sat with Claudia for what seemed the longest hour of my life. Every passing official seemed to eye me suspiciously. I felt my guilt oozing out of every pore. Eventually the commissionaire returned and said kindly, “Follow me.”
Another small office, another young man behind the desk, another quick glance through the paperwork and suddenly, Mrs Cordery lll was outside with ‘Indefinite Leave to Remain’ stamped in her Argentine passport.
Jessica Kate was born at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford
on Sunday 24 September 1978.
And the child born on the Sabbath dayNursery Rhyme
Is happy and wise, good and gay.
The three of us flew down to Argentina that Christmas. The shit-fit her mother and grandmother threw soon passed when they saw the baby.
Claudia and Jessica stayed on to enjoy the summer and I flew back to work. By work I meant flying round the world from party to party, pissing it up against the wall and shagging everything in sight.
By now Claudia realised what an immature, irresponsible arsehole she had married. I made half-hearted efforts to improve.
We moved to a proper house with central heating in a proper village, Freeland near Witney, which had shops and a school.
I took Claudia and Jessica with me on a trip to Mauritius for a week.
Then Claudia came across the correspondence with the divorce lawyers and realised I had been married before. It was the final straw.
Her Christmas flight to Argentina with Jessica was already booked. At the airport she gave me an ultimatum: take responsibility for my family, give up flying and move to Argentina or she would be seeing lawyers of her own.
As usual, I did nothing and went back to work. When she returned – unannounced and alone – in March the following year she soon tracked me down. I was shacked up with the Welsh Witch in Hampshire. A flurry of legal notices ended on April 2, 1982 when Argentina invaded the Falklands.
The Welsh Witch suggested I abandon any idea of moving to Buenos Aires.
“Let them start a new life in their own country.”
I readily agreed.
It took me three years to realise how cruel I had been.
Héctor, the divorce lawyer, had the marriage annulled, bought Claudia an apartment, brought Jessica up as his own daughter and gave her a half-brother called Nano before dying of Covid.
However, Claudia never remarried.