Authors: Sue Moorcroft
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction
Copyright © 2011 Sue Moorcroft
Published 2011 by Sue Moorcroft
The right of Sue Moorcroft to be identified as the Author of this Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher or a licence permitting restricted copying. In the UK such licences are issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency, 90 Tottenham Court Road, London, W1P 9HE
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available
from the British Library
For never suggesting that I get an ordinary job.
Thanks to Sue Dukes for answering fifty e-mails about sub aqua diving without a single complaint.
To Tony Bosson for his advice on hand injury, and for letting me touch his scar.
Especial gratitude to
on the Malta Global Friends website, but especially Tom Restall, Paul Vella, Louis Risso, Peter Birkett, Mark Caruana and Bill Coxhead, for patiently answering my many and varied questions about my beloved Malta, and for making the translations. If any of the words are naughty, it was them, not me!
And to Salvinu Lombardi of Sliema, for very kindly doing much the same.
I would never have got this far, or, indeed, very far at all, without the Romantic Novelists’ Association, and in particular the New Writers’ Scheme run, at that time, by Margaret James, who always knew just what to say. Thanks also to my great mates at the RNA’s Bedford Chapter who supplied encouragement along with the raucous lunches, and also to South-East Chapter for their friendship.
And thanks to Carl and Paul for turning the guitars down when I asked, and Mum, Trev and Kev for their interest and support. And to Michael, for being so pleased. And for bankrolling me for the past decade. I love you.
Giorgio and the House of Cards
Tired of listening to a mechanical woman's patient explanation,
The phone you are trying to reach may be switched off. Please leave a message...
Judith McAllister tossed down her mobile and prowled out into the heat on the open balcony to stare at the early evening light on Sliema Creek.
The creek, one of those deep fingers of sea that cuts into Malta's coastline, reflected the intense blue of the sky. Red-and-white ferryboats shimmied lazily, returned from their day excursions around the island or to the sister islands of Gozo and Comino, and emptied of early summer tourists. Aluminium tables at the pavement cafés had filled up, perhaps with the same tourists keen to cool off with a Cisk
beer beneath yellow or blue umbrellas.
Although the sun was sinking behind the building the heat was still intense. She wasn't as resilient as she used to be. In her twenties and thirties she'd basked at every opportunity, but wisdom came with age and now she was wary of blistered skin or pounding headaches.
The Strand, the teeming road between herself and the boats, was busy with cars, orange buses, and
- the traditional horse-drawn carriages. She glanced down into the street, half expecting to see Giorgio sniffing the sea air as he parked his car, a new MG, bright red.
A glance at her watch.
He was very late.
She'd rushed home from work two hours ago, but found the flat empty and silent. After showering, she'd slipped into a floaty dress she knew to be one of his favourites and dried her hair so that it lay sleek over her shoulders. And still no Giorgio. Maybe he'd stopped off for a drink? One with the boys?
She turned her head and narrowed her eyes to gaze inland up the creek towards the bridge to Manoel Island, the smaller craft bobbing at their buoys and the luxury cruisers, the 'gin palaces', in the yacht marina. Giorgio was deliberately late, she presumed, to exhibit his irritation that she had to work this afternoon.
'But it's Saturday, I have the air!' he'd complained, dark eyes unsmiling. 'This dive has been arranged for a week!' Now that she'd introduced Giorgio to sub aqua diving, he showed the beginner's impatience to be underwater all the time, go further, deeper, push his boundaries.
She'd stroked his thick, dark hair. 'It's a pain. But they're important clients, Giorgio. We've been wooing them for months, I can't let Richard down by missing the meeting. It's not his fault they had to reschedule.' She'd invested part of her divorce settlement into Giorgio's business, Sliema Z Bus Tours, but the rest into her Uncle Richard's business, Richard Morgan Estate, so took it seriously. 'We can dive on Sunday. The sea will still be there.'
His eyes had softened as he'd accepted her apologetic kisses, but he'd refused to be put off. 'OK, Charlie Galea will be my diving buddy.'
'No, he's not much more experienced than you, Giorgio - '
He kissed her, thoroughly. 'Am I or not a diver?'
'But so inexperienced - ' Her words had been lost in laughter, every one of her objections smothered with a kiss.
Judith watched the small horses in the shafts of the
whisking their tails at the flies, and sighed. Apart from her instincts rebelling at the thought of novice divers - no matter what their certificates said - diving unaccompanied, her own opportunity to dive this weekend had no doubt disappeared. Giorgio would have let Charlie have her air.
It had been sweltering in Sliema today, inevitably tomorrow would be the same. Fabulous to have escaped it by sinking into her beloved, beautiful, hushed turquoise world of weightlessness, to revel in the water gliding coolly into her wet suit and over-exposed skin. To turn to Giorgio to signal
It was wonderful now they could dive together. Special.
Even decompression halts had become a pleasure, the cobalt blue panels of her wetsuit entwined with the scarlet of his as they hung together in the water to watch the elongated beams of sunshine filtering down from the surface.
She let her eyes half-close for a moment as she recalled the delicious sensation, the combination of body warmth and water chill. Sub aqua diving helped keep her from feeling middle-aged.
Curling her bare toes away from the hot concrete of the balcony, she wandered back in to the kitchen where the windows stood wide open in a largely futile attempt to release hot air, and switched off the oven with a kept-warm-for-too-long lasagne inside.
Red wine, opened ready, waited on the worktop. She poured another glass, ruby, ruby red, and returned to the sitting room to try Giorgio's mobile again.
The phone you are trying to reach...
A fat lot of use that was.
She sighed, and arranged the layers of her green-shot-with-gold dress, selected to complement her golden-brown eyes and the nutty highlights in her hair. Her favourite colours, like an English late summer harvest.
Slotting a love songs album onto the CD player, she sank into a chair, her bare feet cooling pleasantly on the tiled floor, her head tipping comfortably back. 'Giorgio's playing bloody games, Judith,' she told herself.
It was to punish her a little and pique her appetite, this withdrawal of his company, to make her especially pleased to see him when he finally sauntered in, eyes alight with challenge and skin tasting of the sea.
He'd press his body to hers. 'So, now the work is finished and you have time for Giorgio?' And suddenly being with him would be more important than making complaints about where he'd been until now.
That's how it was. Being with him was always more important than everything else.
They'd met on the promenade that edged Tower Road at Ghar id Dud. She often climbed the hill from The Strand in her lunch hour to walk on the broad paved area high above the rocky foreshore, tall hotels on one hand and the sea on the other. It had been November, then, and the days deliciously warm rather than beating with heat.
She'd paused to watch teenagers jump from the heights of The Chalet, the bones of a concrete pier projecting into Ghar id Dud Bay. Four boys and a girl ran off the top tier, letting out blood-curdling shrieks as they plummeted through the salty air and entered the sea thirty feet below with loud smacks and plumes of spray. Judith winced with the force of every entry, smiling three seconds later as the youngsters resurfaced in circles of foam, screaming with exhilaration.
Part of her longed to share their youth and blithe disregard for danger, to leap into thin air and slap down into the sea with leg-stinging force, wait for gravity to stop bearing her down then kick, kick, ears aching, for the surface.
A voice at her shoulder claimed her attention. 'It's a little mad, but not too painful.'
She looked around. A man. She returned his smile politely.
He settled his elbows on the rail beside hers. 'This I have done.' He gestured at the foolhardy teenagers clambering back to the upper level. He spoke good English, but, of course, many Maltese did, making things too easy for English-speaking visitors.
Judith glanced at him again. His skin was golden, his eyes as dark as damsons, his hair well cut and neat. Around his neck glinted a gold crucifix on a thick chain. He smiled.
A laugh, a soft, husky sound. 'When I was much younger, and more stupid. But it is unsafe, The Chalet, is unsafe for many years. You can see there has been a fence to stop people climbing on. It's broken, and the children climb.'
The howls of glee began again, and together they watched the spectacle of young bodies springing joyously into nothingness and plunging down into benevolent blue waves.
'The Chalet used to have a dance floor and an open-air café on two levels, for celebrations, for dances. A balustrade ran all the way round, and there was a grand entrance, here.' He indicated a spot near to where they stood.
Judith frowned at the skeletal structure, trying to envision such imposing flesh to it. 'What happened?'
He shrugged. 'A bomb, in the war.'
She nodded. The war had been very cruel to Malta. Reminders, such as the ruins of The Opera House in Valletta, dotted the island.
'I think it was fixed, but there was too much damage, and in some
storms the sea took it away.'
?' She spoke a little Maltese, but this word was unfamiliar to her.
'Storms on the north-easterly wind, they can bring a very big sea. You've seen the breakwater built in the mouth of Grand Harbour? To keep the shipping protected from the
.' He indicated The Chalet. 'Now, the government wishes for The Chalet to become something safe and new, but there is nothing decided, I think.'
Judith stared at the pier in fascination. At the crumbling remains of balustrades, the immense pillars. Gazed at the rippling turquoise sea, and, even though she'd witnessed violent winter storms herself, had difficulty in imagining it rising and towering in monstrous waves capable of sucking masonry off a big concrete structure.
She often paused to watch the waves roll in around The Chalet Ghar id Dud, and once or twice a week the man materialised beside her. He was Giorgio Zammit, he lived in Sliema and worked as a tour guide, and was younger than her. The days their paths crossed were either his off-duty days or those when he worked afternoons and met the distinctive Z Buses in front of The Chalet at one o'clock, ready for tourists from the nearby hotels, The Preluna, The Park.
One afternoon duty was to escort a trip to Ta' Qali Handicrafts Village in the centre of the island, what remained of the military airport where the famous Gloster Gladiator biplanes, Hope, Faith and Charity, had once flown tirelessly against the might of the Germans. Some enterprising person had begun to use an empty aircraft hanger for glass blowing, and then others moved into the old nissen huts, and eventually new huts, and for years the whole thing had been a thriving tourist attraction.
'Do they still sell the Mdina glass at Ta' Qali? And the filigree jewellery? It must be a year since I last went.'
'Come today,' he suggested. He let his arm touch hers.
'I haven't booked.'
'There is space.'
She glanced at her watch. She had no meetings or appointments that day, November and December were the quiet months in the office. Why not? She took out her phone. 'I'll pay my fare, of course. You won't get into trouble with your employer, will you?'
'No.' He smiled, eyes gleaming. It took her a month to realise that he was one of the owner-operators of Sliema Z Bus Tours, the cream coaches with a rainbow that arced along the side above a big Z.
She rang Richard to say she was taking an afternoon off. Yes, she was fine. No, nothing was the matter. 'Have a good time, then,' he said. Richard was marvellous, she had such a great relationship with him. Difficult to realise, sometimes, that he was her mother's brother.
The modern coach arrived, cream paintwork gleaming, a contrast to the island's bright orange route buses, some of which had been trundling the island's roads for fifty or sixty years. He introduced her to the driver, installed her in a front seat, grabbed a clipboard and swung down to meet his passengers.
'Hallo, madam, I am Giorgio, and I am your tour guide today. Your name, please?' His charm was effortless. It just shone from him, coaxing out smiles and laughs and turning everything into a joke. Still smiling, the guests climbed the steps, giving little puffs of pleasure at the coolness of the interior with the air conditioning and the dark glass windows.
It proved an interesting afternoon, Giorgio spent most of the short journey standing beside the driver, facing the passengers and talking about himself, the bus, the tour company, the areas through which they passed and Malta's history, swaying easily with the bus's motion and making jokes.
At Ta' Qali he took the tourists to a display of filigree jewellery making, then gave them an hour to shop, pointed out their bus number, explained where to get an ice-cream and reminded them not to neglect to drink. 'It's no longer summer, but still the sun we give a little respect.' He talked to the driver, he filled in a couple of boxes on a form, then jumped down beside Judith on the cracked tarmac. 'Today is an easy job. Everybody will shop. Maybe they spend too much money, but is OK.'
A pleasant way to spend the afternoon, strolling from hut to hut. Judith enjoyed watching the light strike the colours of the glassware, examining the jewellery in glass cases and admiring the intricacies of the Malta lace,
. And always she was conscious of the man beside her, the smile in his watching eyes.
It was... unsettling. His eyes told her he desired her, but her clear and sensible head found it difficult to believe. Even middle-aged men tended to lose interest in middle-aged women. She had the bruises to prove it. If her ex-husband, Tom, a decade older than her, had succumbed to the tighter, younger flesh of Liza, why should she expect better from Giorgio, a decade younger?
The shopping over, Judith learned that the trip included first a visit to the magnificent Mosta Dome, and then a folk evening in Qormi.