Authors: Sue Moorcroft
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction
She sensed his pleasure that he'd tricked her gently into spending longer with him than she'd meant. And felt herself smile.
By the midpoint in the evening most of his duties were discharged. Food had been eaten,
, beef wrapped around mincemeat, and steaks of the local fish,
i, with spinach and bitter olives. Songs had been sung and dances had been danced. For the final hours the guests wound down with deliciously moist cakes and cold wine.
They sat on wooden benches in a dim corner of the courtyard with a tin table between them.
'Did you enjoy yourself?' His voice was low, obliging her to shut out other voices to hear.
She drew a little design in the condensation on her glass. 'Oh, yes.'
'I would like to meet you again. I would like very much.' His voice was deep and intimate, his gaze intense.
'Yes,' she repeated.
But, the next day, Richard frowned when she told him about her outing. He mopped the sweat from his pate and studied her carefully.
'What do you know about him?'
Surprised, she shrugged. 'His name's Giorgio Zammit - '
Richard rolled his office chair over to hers, his forehead creasing over his black eyes. 'Bus tours bloke?'
'Mm,' she agreed, warily, realising from his tone that she wasn't going to like whatever he was about to say. 'Why?'
He sighed, putting his hand over hers. 'His wife lives in Sliema, too.'
She recoiled. 'No! He wouldn't ask me out if - '
Her uncle's round face was solemn and sympathetic. He hesitated, choosing his words. '
Maltese men are attracted to British ladies for a specific reason, Judith. Maltese women are brought up strictly. And the majority of British women aren't.'
Although reluctant to take the hint, she heard the uncertainty in her own voice. 'I don't think that's it!'
'What better lover than a mature woman from a culture where women expected the freedom to take lovers?' He looked uncomfortable. 'I think you're just a trifle older than him?'
She refused to voice the word
'I'm grateful, in other words?'
He squeezed her hand again. His reply was oblique. 'I think you're wonderful. And I think you don't deserve to be hurt again.'
All morning she toyed with pictures of Giorgio's smile and the warmth in his eyes. The curve of his eyebrow and the way his cheekbones made her want to touch his face. Obviously, the manner in which their paths crossed so often signalled contrivance on his part, but she was always glad to see him. She mulled over his motives. In the light of Richard's information, they seemed uncomfortably plain.
The moment he appeared beside her at the railings near The Chalet, she tackled him. 'Giorgio, I doubt very much that you are a single man.'
Meeting her gaze, he asked, 'Why do you say this?'
Her heart contracted that he hadn't immediately burst out with a denial. 'It seems unlikely that a man of your age has never married. But there's no divorce here, I know that. So unless your wife's dead, you're married.'
He crossed himself at the mention of death. Then his fingertips tapped gently on the railing. 'You are right. There is no divorce in our country. But some men live apart from their families. Many, many men. Shall we walk?'
They began along the broad, paved promenade between the busy road and the drop to the rocky beach.
Judith's heart was slithering in her chest. 'So you do have a wife?'
Gravely, he nodded. 'Johanna. And I have daughters, Alexia and Lydia. We are all very unhappy when we live together. It's better not. I have lived alone for fourteen years. Alexia is 19, she works in a chemist shop in Tower Road, training. Lydia is 17 and still does her education. I love my children very much. But I do not love their mother, and I have not loved her for a very long time. I doubt whether she ever love me, ever.'
His emphatic tone and the glitter of his eyes moved her.
'So why marry you?'
He shrugged, an exaggerated, frustrated gesture that brought his shoulders up around his ears. 'Many times I ask myself. Maybe her father thought I was best she could do.'
'Giorgio,' she'd said, carefully. 'I
divorced. And I don't think we'd better go out together again.'
'I am separate,' he declared forcefully. But he made no attempt to detain her when she turned and returned to the office.
Two days later, he materialised at her side as she ate an apple on a green-painted bench facing the waves that were bigger today, bursting on the rocks. Despite her reservations, somehow she found herself joining another of his trips, this time on a ferry to Gozo, the largest of the neighbouring islands.
At the end of the excursion he halted her as she made to follow the tourists from the boat. 'Tomorrow is my rest day. I spend a day on a beach. To help me enjoy this, will you be my company?' He thought for a moment, then amended, 'My guest.'
She failed to resist his charm. Once couldn't hurt.
They spent the day on the white sand of Anchor Bay at the north end of the island. Talking, laughing, swimming in a cooling sea barely ruffled by the breeze. That evening they ate in Rabat, in a small cellar restaurant aromatic with goat's cheese and herbs and lit by dancing light of red candles in wine bottles.
He drove her home in the early hours, the stars bright against a black sky. Parking outside her flat beside the slack night time sea, he cradled her face gently and kissed her, a deep, carnal kiss, a kiss of clear intent, a kiss that made her muscles melt. 'Today we've made a good beginning. It's a big thing we begin.'
A sudden bleak regret encompassed her heart. It was all very well to take pleasure from a single day to be enjoyed and allowed to sink into the past.
It had been so innocent.
Even if the air crackled. Even if his eyes burnt with hunger.
It could be glossed over. And one single kiss.
But now his words were forcing her to face facts, and she responded with a deliberate misconstruction. 'You're right, it would be big, if we allowed it. But, although you say you've been separated for years, you take me to places far away from home.'
He grew still. 'I do not hide you.'
'I think you do. I think your wife lives in Sliema.'
He stared at her for several long moments. 'I apologise,' he said, at last. 'Yes, is true, a little. Johanna and me have been separate for fourteen years, but I do not make people talk of her by making a parade of my feeling for you. Why give her that pain? We will be always apart, but still we consider for each other, and for our daughters. They are good daughters and Johanna is a good mother. Also, my parents, they are unhappy their son cannot have a good marriage, and I try not to make them more unhappy. They are my parents. My Uncle Saviour and Aunt Cass, my cousins and their children, we all live in this big village, my parents would hurt to feel the family embarrassed by me. You live in Sliema, you know Sliema. People know other people.'
'Difficult,' she acknowledged, sighing. 'I understand.' But that didn't make it any easier. The street lights and the moonlight glittered together in the ripples of Sliema Creek and flecked Giorgio's eyes. 'Perhaps it's impossible. I'm not sure I'm the right woman to be tidied away, a secret from your family.' And she kissed his cheek, a fleeting farewell, hurrying from the car and safely through the entry door to the flats where he couldn't follow.
The next day he surprised her at the office a few minutes before she would normally take her lunch. He'd never visited the office before. Very solemn, he faced her over her desk. 'Is
impossible. If you want, we promenade ourselves. We go now to Tony's Bar on The Strand, and eat at a table on the pavement where everyone in Sliema can see. Every day, if you want, we do it.'
His eyes were almost black and her head spun with how much she wanted him. She could
let him make his life so uncomfortable, either for himself or for those he loved. Instead she allowed their love affair to begin. Discreet, if not quite secret.
He was, after all, separated from his wife.
In England, she would've thought nothing about going out with a separated man. The only difference was that Giorgio would never take the next logical step - to divorce.
Richard was brilliant, though he never approved. Richard, who married Erminia, a Maltese woman, when he'd been stationed on the island with the British Army in the sixties, at least understood. Probably too clearly.
'It's dangerous to go into these relationships half-heartedly,' he counselled. 'If your partner's Maltese and you want to live in Malta you're well advised to embrace the whole thing, race, religion - and marriage.' He'd told her this as they worked together at polished maple desks, guiding foreign buyers through the labyrinth of acquiring property on the island. He tried to tell Giorgio the same over a palely gleaming Cisk beer at a pavement café overlooking the creek that bobbed with boats in blues and reds.
Giorgio just grinned. 'We make our own rules.'
But no, they didn't. They worked around those of others.
The entry system intercom buzzed suddenly, jarring her out of her thoughts.
Disorientated, she reached quickly for the handset. 'I thought you were never coming! Have you forgotten your key?'
A hesitation. 'Is Charlie Galea. Can I speak with you?'
What on earth...? Maybe Giorgio was ill. Or drunk! 'Of course, Charlie. Come up.' She made herself sound composed, and pressed the button to release the front door.
Charlie Galea was younger than Giorgio, thinner, taller. He lived with his wife and three small children in San Gwann, behind Gzira and Ta' Xbiex. She knew him a little, he was another recent addition to the diving fraternity.
He stepped through her pale green front door and into the entrance area that opened out into the other rooms, his eyes flickering around the white walls decorated with pastel watercolours.
He looked so drawn and ill at ease as she showed him into the sitting room. The poor lad was horribly uncomfortable. Probably Giorgio
drunk, and had sent gullible young Charlie Galea to make his excuses. Or perhaps to fetch Judith, so that Giorgio could sparkle his eyes at her and urge her to join the fun?
'Coffee?' she offered.
He shook his head. Cleared his throat. Then, unexpectedly, slid a hand across his eyes.
Despite the temperature, Judith felt a chill slither around her. Giorgio being drunk would hardly make Charlie cry. Her lips tingled. 'What, Charlie?'
The young man took a deep breath. 'There was an accident, today. With Giorgio.'
She sat forward, fists balling, heart pummelling her rib cage from the inside. 'How bad?'
He nodded, sniffing. 'Very bad. There was a jet ski - '
Her stomach tossed like a pancake. 'Oh no!'
The story came tumbling out, torrents of words clumped together between Charlie's sobs. 'There was plenty of sea for everyone. Anchored there was a cruiser, we see it before we go down.
'Under the water, we hear engines as we come up, but we are at the end of our air, messing about at three metres on the last of our tanks. We are well within the 50-metre zone and we send up our marker buoys already. We are safe to surface with caution.' He wiped his face with his T-shirt.
'But there were two jet ski, put in the water from the cruiser, I think. They move so quick, right inside the reef. Giorgio, he surface first...'
Horrific images flashed into Judith's mind, Giorgio mown back under, his respirator torn from his mouth as the moaning beast of the jet ski bounced across the water, into the exclusion zone and right upon the surface marker buoy.
Her heart beating in her throat, she jumped to her feet. 'He's alive?'
Charlie nodded. 'But bad.'
'I should have been there,' she breathed. 'Is he in St. Luke's?' The main hospital, at Gwardamanga.
He nodded again, coughing back his tears. 'The helicopter take him.'
Judith began to cast around furiously for shoes, her bag. 'I must go - '
And suddenly Charlie was on his feet, his eyes enormous with apprehension. 'They say no. They say no,
Her movements slowed. Stilled. The world went quiet apart from a mosquito-like whining in her ears. She fell back, bonelessly, into her chair. 'Who does?' she whispered. As if she didn't know.
'His wife. His mother. They ask the hospital to make sure you are kept out. You are not family, you not visit, they say.'
'Nonsense!' she snorted, robustly. 'They can't do that!'
But they could.
Until the accident, despite Giorgio's mother, Maria, walking out of the one meeting Giorgio tried to arrange, Judith hadn't quite appreciated the strength of his family's feelings. It hadn't mattered if his parents refused to acknowledge her. Their relationship could go on without them. Her existence shouldn't cause too much harm to Johanna, his wife, it had been so long since Johanna and Giorgio had lived together.