Authors: Sue Moorcroft
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction
Hitching her bag up on her shoulder, she thrust her hands into her jacket pockets, her fingertips finding the empty corner where the crucifix had lain in a tangle for the last days.
She wasn't sure yet whether it was a loss or a relief.
But, whichever, she'd drawn a line under the whole saga, and would, in time, feel better.
As she swung away the ache in her head took on a life of its own, and the world suddenly shimmered and pooled around her.
She halted, screwing up her eyes. The air was sparkling as if Tinkerbell had just flown around the edges of the buildings, making them glisten and warp.
The sunshine on this fairy dust made her eyeballs ache unbearably, but she forced her feet to get going again, left-right, up the street, their echo launching lance-like pains above her eyes, across the bridge of her nose and her cheekbones. Her ears began to ache, making her uncomfortable with the chatter of children, car engines echoing as they passed in low gear, and the voices of three women calling to one another from their upstairs windows.
Oh no. Migraine.
She hadn't had one since her teens, but she hadn't forgotten how savagely they used to attack. Shading her eyes with her hand she felt the pavement turn to sponge beneath her feet. Her heart rose up into her throat.
Putting out a hand to a wall to steady herself, she breathed in through her mouth, trying to quell the nausea as the world dipped alarmingly. Thankfully, she was unlikely to be humiliated by being sick in the street. If previous attacks were anything to go by she had a couple of hours of this misery before the sickness that would signify the end of the migraine swept over her. Sweat burst out all over her face, in the hollow of her throat and down her spine. She swallowed hard and breathed deeply.
Engrossed in her own discomfort, she didn't notice that Maria had followed her until her voice came from behind. 'Hey!'
Pain cannoned about Judith's skull as she half-turned.
Maria was holding out the crucifix. To her. Agnello waited, a step behind his wife. He'd lost a lot of weight since Judith had seen him last. Probably grieving for his only son.
Dumbfounded, she squinted at the glint of gold, then at Maria's expressionless face. 'What...?' She winced as the pain above her eyes grew boots and kicked at the top of her head.
Impatiently, Maria shook the crucifix in Judith's direction.
Slowly, Judith put out her hand. And Maria slithered it into her palm.
'But...?' Bile pulsed in her throat in rhythm with the pounding in her head, and focussing through the fairy dust became harder. 'Are you giving it to me?'
A tiny nod. Then a huge shrug, reminding Judith sharply of Giorgio. 'It was give to you.'
She tried to think through a band tightening around her forehead. 'But should it have been?'
Maria began to walk away. 'Perhaps yes. Perhaps no.' Agnello gave Judith a curious look, nodded, and followed Maria.
Shaking, Judith managed to cross into the shade. But her pain increased until she felt as if massive talons gripped her entire head. Her vision danced and fizzed.
She sank down against the base of the wall, legs like water, desperate to be still. Just to be out of the sun. To close her aching eyes. She prayed that the church bells wouldn't begin to peal.
She was so taken up with her discomfort that she jerked as a hand grasped her shoulder. The movement made her feel as if her skull had broken into shards and rasped sickeningly against her brain.
'You are ill?'
She sliced her eyes open a slit to glimpse Maria Zammit wearing a tiny frown of concentration. The pattern of her dress made Judith feel as if she was spinning.
'A little,' she said. 'Migraine, I think. I'll have to wait for it to go off a bit.' She let her eyes close again.
Maria clicked her tongue and made a noise, '
You don't stay here!'
'I'll go soon. It'll pass. I just need...'
With another click of her tongue, Maria turned away.
Judith covered her eyes with her hands, craving darkness.
And then there was a man beside her. Agnello. 'I put you in my car?'
Judith swallowed convulsively at the thought of being shaken about on Malta's busy roads. 'Thank you, but I'm afraid of being sick.'
'OK.' She felt a hand under her elbow. 'Come, you have a quiet room and lie down. Yes? We phone your friends.'
She forced her eyes to open slightly as, one either side of her, they pulled her steadily to her feet. All she could think about was the blinding headache/seasickness/vertigo that was migraine, it was certainly no time for a prideful refusal. 'That would be... a relief. Thank you.'
They helped her through the door and into a small room with a long sofa.
She was pathetically grateful just to lie down and close her eyes as her unlikely white knights closed the thick russet curtains with stealthy movements, and fetched her a blessedly soft pillow for her poor head. She gave them Richard's home phone number, but they received no answer. Adam must have gone out. She elected not to phone Richard Morgan Estate, although Raymond and Lino would no doubt be there. She could live without their cousinly ministrations. She wanted Adam.
As she couldn't get him, she closed her eyes and gave herself up to simple gratitude for the cool, dim room.
Gently, gradually, she relaxed.
Once she was motionless, the pain in her eyes, temples, cheekbones and the top of her head settled to a lancing throb, and the rolling nausea began to subsided.
She dozed uneasily, torn between appreciation and anxiety. She'd found a haven but it had, until now, been hostile territory. Fervently, she wished she could click her fingers and find herself back in the bed she'd abandoned so late this morning. Preferably with Adam's comforting arms around her.
The church bells began, sliding into her dreams as she dozed.
The graceful Stella Maris Parish Church. Giorgio's funeral mass. Dark suits and dresses. Solemn faces, lines of grief, tears.
And, back down the years, Johanna beautiful in a white lace dress, Giorgio handsome in a new suit, young and smiling and thinking they had a love to last. Proud, beaming family, Maria and Agnello, his sister, Josephine, Saviour and Cass. Nobody knowing that one day the implacable sea, the same that almost surrounded Sliema, would take him away.
Her eyes flickered. A frightening image formed of the sea welling up onto shore after him... Her head banged with fresh pain as she moved unwisely on the pillow. No! The sea wasn't to blame it was the jet ski, roaring, racing into a diving zone. And Giorgio surfacing at the wrong instant...
Giorgio hadn't taken every precaution possible. She swirled the idea around her mind, testing it for soundness. No one could argue with the fact that he'd committed the sin, for a diver, of not respecting the boundaries of his own limitations. Armed with his brand new open water certificate, really quite a basic qualification, he'd put himself in peril and flouted advice.
He'd risked a life that was good, a life containing her love. And paid the price. They all had.
Because she'd known that she could probably have prevented the tragedy
had she been there
, she'd blamed herself, let others blame her, too. Attempted to shoulder a burden that had been impossibly unwieldy.
According to Saviour, Giorgio had known about the lapsed insurance policy. Perhaps fear at the consequences of his own mistake was what had made him reckless?
If only you hadn't gone without me. Had waited until Sunday. The sea would still have been there, Giorgio.
Her eyes popped open. He'd chosen to go without her. She closed her eyes again hastily as pain boomed behind them.
This time without difficulty, she summoned Giorgio's image to her mind.
And she smiled. Because the image of Giorgio was smiling, of course it would, he smiled often. The smile the image wore was the apologetic one he employed when his enthusiasms had overcome his common sense and everything had gone wrong. When he'd tried to speed up the cooking and burnt the meat. When he tried to force his way into traffic and pranged the car.
When he refused to wait one day for an experienced diving buddy.
When he forgot, in all likelihood, about listening for engines immediately prior to surfacing. Sighing, she frowned, trying not to move although she was growing cramped, anxious not to reawaken the blinding pain.
Something felt strange.
She was used to abrading her wounds and making certain that she could still feel the blame.
Forgiving herself was a new sensation. A relief.
It was an hour later when she awoke from restless, fitful dreams of headache, heartache and Giorgio.
The tolling of the bells had ceased, and the house was filled with the aroma of frying onions. She could hear the murmur of voices, water running in a sink and the sawing of a bread knife.
Experimentally, she opened her eyes. The glittering fairy dust had gone. She tried rolling her head on the pillow. Bearable. Cautiously, she pushed herself upright.
She launched to her feet and staggered out of the room, surprising Maria in the kitchen into dropping a wooden spatula. Mutely, Judith slapped a hand across her mouth, and Maria immediately grasped the urgent nature of the problem.
! In here!' She hustled her into a downstairs shower room, and Judith dropped to her knees in front of the lavatory as the door closed.
But after a further hour on the sofa, the migraine had passed. There was residual giddiness and a sort of hangover, but her vision was steady now and the violent headache had subsided. Sleep was still asking for her, but that could come later.
She made her way out to the kitchen. Maria turned away from wiping the kitchen table. She didn't smile, but she didn't glare or frown either. Her voice was considerately soft. 'Do you recover?'
Judith's own voice sounded thin. 'I'm much better, thank you. You've been so kind. I'm very grateful.'
Maria shrugged, and clicked her tongue dismissively. Any kindness on her part was not up for discussion, evidently.
In the corner, Agnello shook out his newspaper. 'Is good. You are not ill. You want food?' He indicated a big saucepan.
Judith looked away hastily. 'Really, no, thank you, I couldn't.' But she accepted a tall glass of clear, cool water, which she made herself sip. Then Maria showed her out to the street.
'You know the way to go?'
'Yes, thank you.' And she did. It was quite plain and simple.
'We say goodbye.' Maria held out her hand.
Judith took it, gaining a curious comfort of closure from feeling the small, rough and wrinkled hand in hers of the woman who'd given Giorgio life. 'Goodbye. And thank you. Really.'
Maria took her hand back, with a shrug. 'I think of Giorgio.'
'Of course. So do I. He'll remain in our hearts and minds.'
Almost, Maria smiled, as Judith settled her bag on her shoulder and turned to walk back towards Tower Road.
Johanna's door had no doorknocker and no bell, and Judith had to knock hard with her knuckles on the timber to be heard. The impact stuttered up her arm and into her fragile head.
It was evening by now, mild and balmy. The sky had faded to lavender. Judith waited on the top step. It probably wasn't as long as it felt before Johanna answered, gazing suspiciously at Judith, perhaps unsurprisingly, her features sharpening. Judith didn't bother trying to summon a smile, but ensured that her voice was pleasant and polite before letting it out to duel with Johanna. 'Would it be possible for me to speak briefly with Lydia, please?'
'A very quick word. I don't need to be alone with her, but I do need to talk to her directly.'
Johanna looked thoughtful, but didn't turn to call her daughter to the door. She stared silently at Judith, instead, as if trying to read Judith's mind. Perhaps she would never have let Judith see Lydia if the girl hadn't come running downstairs as Judith waited on the well-swept steps.
'Hello,' said Judith, carefully.
'Oh!' said Lydia, exactly as she had last time. She looked intrigued, eyes agog.
Judith ignored Johanna's impatient tuts and addressed Lydia, extracting her hand from her pocket, the crucifix looped between her fingers. 'Lydia, you know who I am. I've been to see your grandmother, your
, this afternoon, and she said that I could have this. But I'd like you to have it, instead.'
Pleasure blazed from Lydia's face as she took two rapid skips closer. 'Is for me?' She took what Judith offered unhesitatingly, and with joy, her thick, dark hair framing her huge smile as she clutched her prize.
Judith smiled. 'I think it's better if it stays in your family. Your Nannu Agnello tells me it belonged to his father, and perhaps
father, too.' And then, she offered as much of an explanation for her actions as she was going to, to a wooden-faced Johanna. 'She has a smile just like her father's.'