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Authors: Sue Moorcroft

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction

Uphill All the Way (32 page)

BOOK: Uphill All the Way
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Cass, when she saw Judith at her highly polished door, looked as if she'd swallowed a scorpion.

'Sorry,' Judith offered, not particularly apologetically. 'But I'm back.' She made no effort to embrace the older woman.

They studied one another. It was the first time Judith had seen Cass without make-up, although her dress was as smart as ever and her shoes polished.

Running a smoothing hand over her neat chignon, Cass frowned. 'I should never have given it to you.'

'I expect you've regretted it.'

Suddenly, chariness was replaced by the warm smile that Judith remembered from happy evenings in restaurants with Cass and Giorgio. 'Many times! I was emotional, but it was a stupid thing to do. I should have known that Maria would notice it was missing, she would count the tealeaves in pack to make sure they're all there.'

Proper Maltese weather had returned, and Judith found the sunshine on her shoulders comforting. 'Did you get into lots of trouble?'

Cass rolled her eyes. 'Enough!' Her hand was hooked onto the door handle, but she made no effort to invite Judith in. 'Saviour wasn't pleased with me. Said that I'd embarrassed him.'

'How did he know it was you?'

She flushed. 'Once she realised it was missing, Maria talked of nothing else for weeks. Saviour began to notice how guilty I looked every time she began. He says he can read me like a book.' She almost smiled at this last, as if quietly pleased.

'Is Saviour here?'

The wary expression flashed back onto Cass's face. 'He's working on his old car. His darling, his favourite toy.'

'I was hoping to see him.'

A long hesitation, Cass's dark eyes fixed on Judith's face as if trying to read her mind. Then she stood back. 'Please come in.'

The house was beautiful. A pale grey marble staircase swept up from of the square hall past round windows. In the
salott
, the formal sitting room, the furniture was either heavy and polished or of painted wood. Two stuffed birds stared down from atop a cabinet, and turquoise glass shone like the sea from the windowsills. Cass led her through the
salott
and then a central courtyard dotted with spiky palms, back into the house and through a formal dining room, then out again to a tall gate. Judith reeled a little from the gleaming grandeur of Cass and Saviour's dwelling. It felt like a little palace, and they must be pretty comfortably off to afford it.

Outside the gates they approached a garage that seemed to have been built under the side of another house with a drive that was almost unfeasible, it was so steep. The black-painted doors were folded inside against the white walls.

Saviour was up to his elbows in the engine of an elderly white Mercedes, oil making black gloves on his hands and forearms, spattering his cheek and smearing his forehead. His clothes, old and baggy, were equally soiled, especially where his shirt strained to contain a belly suggestive of a love of food. He didn't seem a natural match for neat and polished Cass, but he had the look of someone happy and absorbed in his task.

Until he saw Judith.

He stared for several moments, his hand unfaltering as it worked in the depths of the car engine. He awarded her a cautious nod, and turned and looked hard at his wife.

Hoping she wasn't dragging Cass into deeper trouble, Judith plunged straight in. 'I'm Judith McAllister.'

He nodded again, straightening, picking up a rag every bit as dirty as his hands he wiped with it, all without speaking, as he studied her.

She held his gaze. 'I'm looking for information. I've come to you because I believe you're a man to give me an honest answer.'

His expression narrowed with suspicion, and he tilted his chin. 'Maybe.' His tone suggested: or maybe not.

Behind Judith, Cass whispered, '
Giorgio kien ihobbha
.' Giorgio loved her.

After another pause, Saviour inclined his head. 'My wife take you to the house, Mrs. McAllister, and I wash my hands.'

It was ten minutes before he joined them, by which time Judith was seated with Cass at a beautiful mosaic table of rich reds and greens in the shade of the courtyard, the
bitha interna
, a drink of cold peach juice beside her.

He took a dark grey iron chair that wouldn't be stained by contact with his oily gear, and regarded her. His eyes were unsettlingly direct, as if he knew more than she was aware.

A deep breath, and she began her explanation. The crucifix, how comforted she'd been to receive it when grief was crushing her. How it had reassured her for many months, shifting against the skin at the base of her throat as she went through her days. 'But then I had a letter from Alexia Zammit.' She paused to give him time to speak, to ease the way by making her explanation a conversation.

But he just waited, silently.

Judith eased her throat with the deliciously cold juice. 'Alexia asked for Giorgio's cross back, and for the first time I questioned my right to it. Perhaps I should have done that sooner, but I was caught up in my own sorrow. But now that Alexia's claimed it, it's worrying me. And I need to know what to do.'

Finally, Saviour spoke. 'The crucifix is valuable.'

'I suppose so. It's gold.'

'But more, is old. When my wife wish to give you a thing of Giorgio, she no realise this belong to his
nannu
. My father. Agnello give to Giorgio when he become a man. And before that?' He shrugged eloquently. 'Perhaps the father of my father.'

Judith felt instantly that this was the truth. There was something direct about Saviour Zammit that made instinctive trust easy. She chose her words carefully. 'I've visited Johanna and Alexia. They tell me the crucifix has been left to Johanna, who wishes to pass it to her daughter.' She allowed the merest suggestion of cynicism to creep into her tone.

She waited. He waited longer.

She looked into his olive-skinned face, the creases and folds of age. 'I asked to see the Will. They said they couldn't show it to me. I need to be convinced of who owns the crucifix before I hand it over. So I came to you. Who does the cross belong to?'

The sun was bright across his face, engraving the lines more deeply. Bright flecks glowed in his dark eyes as he stared at her with surprise.

'You come to Malta to ask this?'

She nodded.

'
Is-Sagramewt
!' The Holy death! An old man's exclamation of astonishment.

Honesty got the better of her. 'Well, partly. And to decide whether to stay in England, or to come back here.'

'You let Maria think you go live England.'

She grinned, faintly. 'I went. I didn't go because she told me to, and I didn't say I'd stay.'

He gave one of his slow nods, and sank into his thoughts, sipping juice from a thick tumbler, the oil of many hours of playing with engines riming his fingernails and defining every grain of the skin of his fingers. At length, he stirred. 'You give money to Giorgio, for a bus?' He sounded suddenly tired.

She felt her cheeks warm as she flushed. 'I was a private investor in the company, yes.'

'And me.' His voice had become deep and sombre.

She stared at him. It hadn't occurred to her that Giorgio might have involved his family with his business. In fact, she hadn't given a thought any other investors.

'You lose a lot a money?'

She debated telling him to mind his own business. But, if he'd invested himself, there didn't seem much point in hiding anything. She shrugged. 'Very nearly everything except for my house in England.'

He grunted, glaring ferociously, shaking his head. 'He is a silly man when he do this. A...' He looked at his wife and spoke in Maltese.

'An optimist,' she supplied.

'And
sappitutto
!'

'Know-all,' Cass translated.

Saviour tossed up his hands. 'But still, he does not mean this bad thing to happen to us!'

Judith smiled, painfully. 'I know.'

'But he know, before he die, that he make a mistake with the insurance.'

She heard herself make a noise, a protest. No, he couldn't have known! Surely, he would have confided in her?

Saviour held up an admonishing finger. 'A mistake, only! Not a cheat! When he discover, he has horror. Horror, yes?' he checked with his wife. Silently, Cass nodded. Saviour turned back to Judith, a sheen of sweat beneath his flashing eyes. 'And scare. He has scare. He come to me...' Saviour's voice broke, and he pushed his finger and thumb fiercely against his eyes.

Quietly, Cass excused herself.

Judith looked away to let the proud old man compose herself. 'I'm glad it was a mistake.'

'He no mean to cheat you!' he repeated in a voice that rasped. Saviour recovered to stare absently at the houses that rose around, the balconies and outside staircases made of stone, the sky above, china blue. He let out a long, long sigh, spreading his gnarled and grimy hands. 'He come to me, but too many money is needed. Those last days he has...' He hesitated, searching in the air with his fingers for the word. 'He has the mood. Not so many smiles.' He demonstrated with a smile of his own, and Judith felt that it was something not seen too often.

Shakily, she drained the last of her peach juice. 'You must be right. He was awkward - moody - with me, because I couldn't dive with him on Saturday. Unnecessarily moody. He refused to wait until Sunday.'

'If he wait for Sunday, he lives now.'

She didn't need reminding.

Cass reappeared with a tray of small cups and coffee in a chrome pot. Saviour tossed his back in one steaming draught, then said, abruptly, 'Possessions, they go to his parents.'

It took several moments for Judith to appreciate what he was saying.

'I know how Giorgio left his matters, and his possessions belong to Agnello and Maria.'

'Thank you,' she managed, slowly absorbing the knowledge that she'd have to speak to Giorgio's parents. A heart-sinking thought.

Examining his grey hands, Saviour spoke in rapid Maltese to Cass. Too rapidly for Judith to pick up any of it. Then he rose. 'Goodbye, Mrs. McAllister. I wish you well.' He nodded and crossed the courtyard with a rolling, bandy-legged gait, back in the direction of the Mercedes.

Cass waited until he was out of earshot. 'He said, you have honour.' She sounded awed.

 

Even though Judith and Adam were moving swiftly through their holiday, Richard and Erminia had to go out for the evening at a party at Birzebbuga, down in the south east corner of the island. The party was to celebrate the engagement of one of Erminia's legion of great-nephews to a girl who they both agreed was beautiful and accomplished, but neither could remember the name of. At any other time Judith would have joined the party joyfully.

But, instead, she and Adam ate at a pizzerija along The Strand, on the first floor, beside an enormous plate glass window overlooking the creek. They shared pizza and dough balls, and a few beers.

Adam was quiet. He'd been quiet all evening. In fact, it seemed as if quietness had become a permanent state with him.

Judith tried to bring him out, and he smiled when she made jokes, and listened when she spoke. But she had to accept, in the end, that he wished to dwell within thoughts of his own, rather than listening to another airing of hers as they strolled back beside the slack, black, rippling water.

She let them into Richard and Erminia's silent house, shutting out the
zirzar
of the crickets as she closed the tall door, and led him into the large and homely kitchen where an enormous window that dominated one wall was covered by a fly screen. She reached for his hands. 'I've been neglecting you. And you're getting fed up with it.'

His answer was light. 'That's what you get for inviting yourself along on someone's quest.' But he didn't manage a smile.

As usual, she felt him slide his right hand from her left. She settled her hands on his shoulders, instead. 'It's true that I've had a lot on my mind.'

He shrugged, staring past her and out into the black night. 'It's more than that. You're a different person, here. At least, you have been since you focussed on the crucifix problem. You wanted to sort your life out, I understand that. It was my fault, I offered to come, to be available when you needed me. You never promised that the reverse would apply.'

Guilt flushed through her. 'I am sorry! It's just this decision's been on my mind. I didn't think it'd take so long - '

Abruptly, he stooped, and shut her words off with his lips.

Surprised by the swift, brief kiss, she made to explain that it was only for now that her focus was elsewhere, but that soon it would be over. She wasn't a different person, not really, it was more that she had a different situation to deal with. Different and difficult, and unhappy. She'd thought the way forward would be obvious, if she were only back on the island. But...

Once again he stopped her words with lips that were hard. His forehead was scored by a frown, and he looked almost angry.

BOOK: Uphill All the Way
4.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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