Authors: Sue Moorcroft
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction
Gently, slowly, she closed her eyes and listened to the crash of the waves and the crack of water falling back into itself.
She remembered the feeling of being down there, finning along above the weed, brilliant fish darting away, octopus reversing into rocky crevices, red starfish prone on the bottom. The sun filtering into the water in diagonal bars.
But she couldn't make the shady shape of the diving buddy into Giorgio.
Her cup empty, she went right down to where the water boiled inside the arm of rock and the sea was forced through a tiny fissure in a smoke-like puff of spray as the wind rattled in her ears. It was like standing on the edge of a cauldron. On a projecting rock stood a loan fisherman, his bait in a white plastic box at his feet. He glanced around and she saw it was Paul Vella, his skin glowing golden from spray-laden breeze. Pawlu, the men called him. Giorgio had fished with him from a boat sometimes for the local big fish,
They'd thought it a great joke to cast near the baited floats laid out painstakingly by other fishermen, effectively intercepting their catch.
Pawlu's silver hair was damp. He raised a hand to her, then secured his rod and stepped back over the rocks.
'Catch much, Paul?'
His smile transformed his face. 'Sure,
Little silver fish, big red eyes.
'What are you using. Shrimp?'
'No, just damp bread, smelly cheese, and patience.' They studied the bubbling sea together for several moments. 'You OK?' he ventured.
She nodded. She'd shared many a beer with Paul and the rest of the boat's crew returning after an excited day's pursuit of yellow fin tuna or Mediterranean Marlin. One of the funniest, sweetest men she'd ever met, he'd made her cry with laughter with his knack for telling stories, there was nothing he liked better than to have a crowd in stitches. It seemed a long time ago, now, another lifetime. Another life. 'I'm OK.' She hesitated, then added, 'I came to remember Giorgio. But I can't seem to feel close to him.'
His eyes showed that he understood. 'You find him somewhere, maybe not where you're looking. I think of him today, too, at Ghar Lapsi. He was a good man, Giorgio Zammit, and we always raise a drink to him on the boat.'
She could imagine them, those old friends of Giorgio's, joking in the sunshine over their rods and nets and noisome bait. Imagine them raising their cans of beer to Giorgio as they fished from the little boat that lurched on the waves.
'It's good to see you in Malta again. I remember you at mass.'
'You're kind.' She managed a smile. 'Give my love to Massie. I hope she doesn't mind cooking all those fish.'
'You want some?' He gestured towards his keep net, his mischievous eyes twinkling now. 'Put them in your handbag. They stop wriggling by the time you get home.'
The memory of his gentle humour helped her ignore an aching knee as she climbed back to the car. Joints that had never ached before did now that she no longer swam.
Once she'd driven back to Sliema, she left Raymond's car in his parking space behind the office. Through the large windows she could see Raymond talking to Richard and Adam, Adam was sitting sideways on a desk. But she turned and strode away without letting him know she was back, without even telling Ray that she'd returned his vehicle.
Twenty minutes later she paused. She was at The Chalet Ghar id Dud, its pier-like skeleton still reaching into the sea and meeting the waves as it had stood for so many years letting the sea gradually wear it away. Her hair writhed in the wind that blew on shore, stinging her eyes as it obstructed her vision, and she zipped herself into her jacket.
No teenagers leapt with joy from The Chalet today.
There was an even bigger sea on this side of the island, running with green rollers and smashing angrily against the pilings. The waves submerged the surrounding rocks, spewing spray that rose high enough to be blown onto the promenade thirty feet above. As one wave subsided with a roar of streaming water, the next roared over its head.
Judith selected one of the green-painted benches furthest back, out of range of the spray.
It had begun here.
Giorgio had materialised at her elbow one day to enjoy her fascination with the kids and their perilous descent into the sea. Here he'd lingered almost daily to intercept her. Here she'd watched him meet his buses, charm the tourists and swap jokes with his drivers. Here he'd enchanted his way into her heart with his brown velvet eyes.
But he wasn't here now.
Back at Richard and Erminia's house, Erminia had made
, one of Judith's favourite meals, a thick stew of pork and sausages with vegetables. Richard packed a generous portion into his rotund body, talking cheerfully about the day, the weather, the way the wind was up. Erminia chimed in with her observations on their grandchildren.
Adam ate quietly.
Judith could scarcely eat at all. Her insides fluttered and her head ached. She'd got precisely nowhere today, and was no nearer knowing what to do about the crucifix.
When the crockery had been cleared away Adam thanked Erminia charmingly for the wonderful meal, then his eyes went back to Judith. 'Fancy a walk to the marina? I thought I'd get a look at those floating palaces.'
She managed a quick smile. 'I have to see someone, and I think they'll be coming home from work between seven and eight.'
His face closed, and he turned away.
He paused, politely, without smiling.
She pressed the cool back of her hand against her aching forehead. 'I could use some company.'
He smiled. 'That would be me.'
The house was set back slightly from the pavement and tight against its neighbours, with one upstairs balcony and square windows with green shutters. It wasn't quite at street level so a few stone steps led up to the front door of varnished wood, and a longer flight down to the basement.
Judith had already been aware in which street Johanna and Giorgio's daughters lived, and Erminia had discovered for her which house was theirs.
She breathed in deeply. Throughout her time with Giorgio the figures of his estranged family had lurked in the shadows, figures in Giorgio's past that, she'd been shown quite plainly, didn't concern her. But now she was about to make them real, give them faces and voices. Feelings.
The wind was gusting, bringing the temperature down to one that was low for the final day of a Maltese April. In fact, it was quite like being back in Northamptonshire. Adam's warm fingers slid around her chill hand and she looked up into the concern in his eyes.
'Don't put yourself through this, it's not obligatory. You don't have to challenge these people who feel antipathy for you, the time for that was when Giorgio was alive and there might have been some purpose to it. You can keep the crucifix - it was given to you - or send it to them by messenger. Or stuff it through the letterbox and run away! Whatever you feel is the right decision.'
'But I don't know, that's the point. Once I was quite certain about everything. Giorgio was trapped in a state of separation, it was unfortunate and unfair. He'd parted from Johanna a long time before I came on the scene, and it had been her decision. We were blamelessly in love. When Cass gave me the crucifix I took it as my due. It was a part of Giorgio when I needed a part of him most, he'd worn it every day and it was as if it represented his heart.' She shivered. 'But now... I'm not quite sure why I was so convinced I was due anything.'
He pulled her lightly to him, sharing his body heat. 'Take a little more thinking time.'
She let herself sag, closing her eyes and thinking how good it was to have contact with him. Then she straightened. It wasn't common, in Malta, to get physical in the street. She raised her chin. 'No, I have to do something about this. It's a weight on my shoulders. Will you wait here for me?'
Her knee protested again and almost gave as she climbed up to the front door. She must make swimming part of her life once more, even if she never dived. A small, thin woman answered the door, her eyes black pebbles the instant they lit on Judith. 'Yes?'
Judith pushed her hands into her pockets in case they began to shake. Facing her lover's widow was less easy than she'd once supposed. 'Johanna Zammit?'
The slightest of nods.
'I'm Judith McAllister. May I see Alexia, please?'
After a long stare, Johanna turned away, shouting into the depths of the house in Maltese. Judith caught the words for 'now' and 'woman'. A young woman appeared from upstairs and stood, staring with hostility at Judith.
She and her mother were very alike, slight and small, cheeks hollow, lips narrow and held in straight lines, hair glossy with chestnut lights.
'I know who you are.'
Judith swallowed. 'You wrote to me - '
'And you've brought to me my father's crucifix? Thank you.' The girl was overly polite.
Slowly, Judith pulled it from her pocket the familiar weight, the chain pooling in her palm.
Alexia reached out - but Judith closed her hand.
The young woman's eyes flashed, and anger swept into her voice. 'My mother says I am to have it! You have no right!' She made a move almost as if she were going to grasp Judith's hand and prise it open.
Judith thrust both her hands back into her pockets. Her voice shook. 'I can see why your mother would like you to have it. But, of course, I must see the Will, just to check
who it belongs to.'
'Is me.' Johanna spoke suddenly. 'As he left this house to me. Us.' Then her eyes moved to a point behind Judith. 'You have a... friend with you?' Her voice was soft with scorn.
Judith glanced around. Adam had moved closer, his hair blowing over his eyes, his brows straight lines of concern. Johanna's tone contrived to make it sound as if Judith had, inappropriately, brought a lover to this delicate meeting with her dead lover's wife and child. It didn't make her any more comfortable that, basically, it was what she'd done.
'He's...' She searched for an explanation that wasn't exactly a lie. 'He advises me.'
She turned back. 'I'll give the crucifix to the person it belongs to, but you must agree that I need proof. What if Maria or Agnello or Saviour tell me it belongs to them?'
Sharply, Johanna said, 'Is not your business - '
She broke off as a car pulled up outside and a teenaged girl bundled herself out, calling thanks in Maltese and leaping for the front steps. Pulling up suddenly, she giggled as she realised she'd almost run full-tilt into a stranger. '
Ma gara xejn
.' It's of no consequence. Judith managed a smile, pulling aside to let the girl through.
With a word of thanks the girl darted indoors, past Johanna and Alexia. Then she turned to smile again.
'Oh...!' The smile was replaced by surprise, realisation, curiosity. But not the hostility of her mother and sister. 'Oh...' she breathed, again.
'You must be Lydia?' Judith's heart clenched as she studied Giorgio's youngest child, the laughing eyes and a smile that made people smile back, the round chin and wide cheekbones. The thick, black hair. Even the angle at which she held her head.
For the first time since coming back, she felt Giorgio's presence.
Johanna rounded on her daughter with a flurry of Maltese, Judith caught
, late, and
, work. With one last candid appraisal, Lydia disappeared into the house.
Judith looked after her. Then she returned her attention to Johanna and Alexia. 'No doubt you have a copy of the Will? I expect it's in Maltese, but what I can't understand myself I can certainly get translated.'
Johanna shrugged. 'I don't have it.'
'That's a pity.'
Walking away, Judith finally allowed herself to shake. Adam took her into a bar and bought her brandy, curving her hand around the balloon and lifting it to her lips, his leg against hers, his arm along the back of her chair. She dropped her cheek against his shoulder.
He said again, 'You don't have to put yourself through this. Cass gave you the cross as something to remember him by.'
She'd been thinking hard about that. It was a romantic premise, but... Her voice emerged, muffled by his jacket. 'I have other things, things he bought me. A necklace, a picture. I'm afraid I may have had my share of Giorgio.'
She looked into his face to see if she could decipher the feelings that went with that neutral response, but Adam had carefully cleared his expression. She straightened up, sighing. 'Let's have a couple of drinks before going back to Richard's.'
The following day, Judith went to see Cass. She went without Adam, knowing any information would flow better if she were alone.