Chapter 1: First day of summer vacation
There was a ship sailing in earlier than expected and he’d had a phone call that seemed to have puzzled him.
The school year was over. It was the first morning of the long summer vacation. Julie leapt out of bed as soon as she opened her eyes and ran to the window to make sure it was sunny. Maurice had promised to let her go swim with Giovanna’s boys if it was sunny. There wasn’t a single cloud in the blue sky. She checked the time on her alarm clock.
«Seven thirty…», she said to herself «Da must have arrived by midnight last night. They’ll still be asleep…»
She tiptoed to the top of the stairs, and listened attentively, but the whole house was silent, so she went back to bed, curled under the light summer covers and fell asleep again. A knock on the door woke her up some time later.
- Yessss…? – she mumbled.
Maurice’s voice called.
- Wake up, sleepyhead! Don’t you want to go swimming?
She sat up directly.
- I do! Are they leaving already?
Maurice opened the door and stepped in. He had shaved and bathed for certain, for his blond hair was still wet, but was dressed in pyjamas and a blue silk dressing gown that made his eyes seem even bluer. Except for her Da, he was the handsomest man Julie knew and she adored him.
- Good morning, Uncle…
- Good morning, miss Sleepyhead! I thought you wanted to go to Sliema with Giovanna and the boys…
She pulled back the covers.
- I do, I do! Is it very late?
- Hurry! Breakfast is on the table; even Da is downstairs. Want help?
- Really, Uncle, I’m eight. I can dress myself, you know?
It was his turn to laugh.
- All right. I’ll go down and tell them you are almost ready. Bring your hairbrush down, and I’ll braid your hair.
She ran past him and disappeared into the bathroom.
- I’ll be down in five minutes.
Maurice went downstairs, still smiling. All the others were sitting at the breakfast table, in the patio. They always set a makeshift table there during summer. There was a delicious smell of bacon and eggs, coffee and hot buttered toast, mixed with the usual perfume of the lemon flowers. Giovanna kept a small lemon tree in a big pot and it sported both flowers and lemons all year round.
- Is she coming or not? – asked Santo, through a mouthful of toast.
- Santo! – called his mother – Manners!
He swallowed in a hurry.
- Sorry, Mamma… - but he looked at Maurice who was pouring himself coffee and asked again – So, is she coming or not?
- She is coming down in a moment; rest your suffering heart.
Those two were thick as thieves. Santo’s brothers were three and four years older than him, and Julie was his closest friend. He smiled when he saw her running down the stairs, wearing a simple white cotton dress Giovanna had embroidered with poppies all around the hem.
- Good morning, love! – said Alec, looking at her, his eyes shining with pride – How pretty you are!
Julie kissed him good morning, with a lovely smile. She gave Maurice her hairbrush and he brushed and deftly braided her long blond curls into a thick braid.
- Eat your breakfast. The boat leaves in less than half an hour…
Giovanna and the children caught the ferry for Sliema right after breakfast. She carried a big picnic basket, and the children carried each his own bath towel. Maurice’s worries were still on their ears.
- See Julie doesn’t get sunburn.
- She has her hat on.
- Do you have enough food? You know how swimming makes them hungry…
- Two bacon sandwiches, one orange, six big strawberries and a bottle of lemonade for each kid. And they can have an ice cream on the way home if they want.
- Don’t come back too late.
- We’ll catch the two thirty home. You worry too much, we’re just going to Sliema, it’s less than twenty minutes by ferry.
Alec held him with a snort of laughter.
- Oh, Maurice, let them go! Don’t be such a mother hen, they can survive for a few hours without you.
Maurice usually went with them, but that particular day he couldn’t. There was a ship sailing in earlier than expected and he’d had a phone call that seemed to have puzzled him. He needed to be downtown at lunchtime to meet someone, because of the ship, and then was going to meet the caller.
He was going to delight in having a free morning and Alec home. They cleared the breakfast table and washed the dishes, then sat on the patio, Alec on the rocking chair, Maurice on the floor, his head resting against Alec’s knees, Alec lovingly stroking his hair. He had always loved the feeling of Maurice’s hair, warm, straight and smooth as silk. Smoke appeared unexpectedly and curled on Maurice’s crossed legs.
- Something upsetting you?
- No, not really. Someone called on the phone, asking to meet me, and I cannot figure why.
- Anything to do with the incoming H.M.S. Scoundrel?
- No. It’s a person that has nothing to do with the trade. Just a useful contact. It will be nothing important, I’m sure. I’ll tell you all when I know what it is.
- You don’t have to, you know. I never quite got to understand what you do…
Maurice turned his head to kiss the hand stroking him.
- I don’t do anything. I’ve told you before, I just know the right things about the right people, have the right accent, dress the right way. I save everyone involved a good deal of trouble and a good deal of money, so they pay me a small part of what I save them. Sometimes, they don’t even pay me, but then they owe me and I can collect later, in other ways.
- I’m never completely certain that it is a safe thing to do… I worry.
- Don’t. It is absolutely safe. I don’t touch anything. The man they think I am doesn’t even exist… There is no more than a handful of people here, and about another handful in England who know who I really am. And half of them prefer to forget it.
- You’re right. I’m being overcautious. Let’s just enjoy our time together. We don’t have this as much as we’d like to.
So they sat there in the warm shade, Maurice leaning on his lover’s legs, his face against Alec’s knee, Alec’s left hand on Maurice’s shoulder, Maurice’s right hand covering Alec’s, gently feeling the plain gold wedding band he’d given him on their last day in London. Their lives were so full now; they rarely shared moments like that, of pure peace and intimacy. Alec sighed.
- It feels so good to sit here with you. I love our life and wouldn’t change a thing, but I sometimes miss having you all to myself. Remember our first year, the Sunday mornings, when all we wanted was to cuddle together and drowse?
- Mmm, - was Maurice’s answer. He closed his eyes and smiled – It feels just like that… I miss that too.
Chapter 2: All the wisdom of love
Alec was dumbfounded. What was happening? Were the shady contacts and the multiple H.M.S. Scoundrels turning into a charitable institution?
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
«Love suffers long, and is kind; love envies not; love vaunts not itself, is not puffed up…». Maurice had never fully understood the meaning of these words before. He had heard them in church repeatedly as a child, and they had been to his ears like sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. Only sound and no significance. The irony of it all made him smile now.
Reading from the Bible had followed poetry, logically, and now both shared the place as his bedside companies. The meanings concealed behind the words were more apparent, for he now read it not in awe or fear, but as he read poetry, with an open mind and a loving heart.
He had acquired some experience about suffering for love and knowing of its kindness in the end. Distant as it now seemed, he never forgot all that first year together, that amazing and terrifying year before the War, of mutual discovery, of learning from each other, of gradually facing the fact that there was no turning back, that they would have to love each other enough to adapt, that if they lost that, they would lose everything. By the end of that year, with all its joy and pain, they had emerged together, alive, stronger, equal, still deeply in love. Alec was less impulsive; Maurice was less hard on himself. They both were better men for being together.
«Seventeen words.» he thought after counting them «All the wisdom of love in seventeen words. Maybe one has to have suffered for love and experienced its kindness to fully understand it.»
He was waiting up for Alec. That was no suffering, merely the sweetest longing, and soon to be over. Only, that night they would not be performing the usual bedding ritual of night shift nights, but having a serious talk. He’d had a strange request from a stranger source. One of his extraordinary acquaintances, Baird, a very discreet middle aged Scotsman, who dealt in printing supplies, an absolutely legitimate business by the way, but knew the most amazingly useful people, had asked him for help and Maurice would not decide anything without Alec.
- So, what was the strange call about? Anyone I know? – asked Alec as he was putting his pyjamas on – Please do a bit of your magic, my neck and shoulders are killing me…
- It was Baird, you know him don’t you? He wanted to know if I can help him…
- What kind of help? – was Alec’s puzzled question, while he felt his muscles relax under Maurice’s well practised hands on his aching shoulders – I had the idea his business was legit. What does he need from you?
Maurice told him the whole story in quite a dramatic tone that was not at all like him. There was this young girl, Baird’s niece, and some unfortunate sudden disease had left her with no other family. She was barely sixteen, fresh from some Secretarial Institute or something of the sort. Baird, who had last seen her when she was two, and even back then only in a photograph, was naturally sad with the death of his only sister, but what really had him worried was that he hardly knew what to do with a young niece. He was expecting her any day now, but he lived alone, except for his handsome young Maltese manservant, and clearly had no place in his life for the orphaned daughter of his departed sister.
- I cannot abandon the lass, she’s my sister’s child and has no one else, but where am I going to put her? – had been his words - You’ve seen my place, it’s scarcely bigger than a cupboard, I have no place for a young girl… to say nothing of… you know…
Maurice knew, and would have guessed all the rest with little help. Alec snorted.
- You know everyone on the island; can’t you help me out? – the man had finally asked - You seem to be able to solve any unpleasantness! I’d be terribly grateful…
Maurice added that Baird’s gratitude might come in handy at some point, and that was something to consider as well.
Alec turned around to look at him, rather surprised with his fervour. He had never seen Maurice so theatrical.
- You do have a talent for the stage; I had no idea! And what does he mean by that? Do tell me. Wants you to adopt the lass?
Maurice laughed. Oh, Alec! He bent down to kiss him heartily.
- No, dear me! He wants me to find her lodgings and work. Just lodgings and work, something suitable for a young girl, so he can keep an eye on her but not have her living with him…
Alec was dumbfounded. What was happening? Were the shady contacts and the multiple H.M.S. Scoundrels turning into a charitable institution? What would follow, he wondered. Maybe some thug bringing Maurice a stray puppy or an orphaned lamb? That chain of his own thoughts, of strays and fragile young things, gave him the answer.
«Oh», thought Alec, «he is sorry for the girl! I should’ve guessed right away…»
His Maurice could not abide the idea of a young girl all alone back in Scotland, even if he had never even seen her. He had to take care of her, since her uncle would not. Maybe he was thinking of Julie, imagining her in such a sad situation. Maybe he thought about his sisters. He felt silently but fiercely proud of this wonderfully generous man next to him, so full of affection he had enough to handle around. He just stood up to hold him.
- I know your middle name is Christopher, but you cannot carry all the burdens of the world. Are you sure about this?
- Well it’s not as if I’m taking responsibility over the girl. I’m just planning to offer her work, I’ll need a secretary eventually. You know I’ve wanted to rent an office for some time now, take business away from home. Of course, we both know Giovanna will mother over her in no time and have her coming for lunch every other Sunday.
- Maybe it will be good for Julie to have another woman around, too. Miss Parks, from her school, says she is a bit too tomboyish.
- You have too big a heart. I expect the lass is pretty too… - Alec teased.
Alec held him closer, adoringly looking into his eyes.
- No. You know better than that. Never been much jealous, except about… and even that is long gone. I am not stupid; I know I have a special place in there. Just teasing, you look so sweet when I do it. Do as you see fit. Hire the kid to keep your books and answer your phone.
They just laid in bed, Alec’s head resting on Maurice, talking, discussing what they could do. It was settled that they were going to help. They could do it.
Their years in Malta had brought them nothing but happiness. They were discreet enough not to discomfort other people, open enough not to awake unwanted curiosity, gentle and polite to their neighbours who had no reason to doubt their story. They used the same surname, Scudder, and everyone supposed they were distant cousins.
As Alec wore a wedding band, people presumed he was a widow. Maurice, most neighbours suspected he had some kind of affair with Giovanna, but then again her husband had died years ago and Maurice was just another slightly odd Englishman who had gone a bit native. Baird was one of the very few who knew about Maurice and Alec, maybe because, as he had stated once in a rather nice tone, it took one to know one.
Moreover, domestic bliss creates a kind of haze that spreads around like light, like warmth. If one has a good home life, it glows, so friends and acquaintances, neighbours and relations want a piece of it, naturally, and they get it because happiness is generous. Maybe Baird had sensed that too. Still, there was no way Maurice was going to leave a sixteen-year-old girl alone in Baird’s certainly well-meaning but inept hands.
- I know Baird; the poor man is clumsy beyond words, and his place really is small. And then there is Stefano to consider… - Stefano was the handsome Maltese, the most recent in a long line of handsome Maltese manservants Baird had employed and always ended up losing to pretty girls.
- Yes, and before Stefano, there was Michele to consider, and before Michele, there was Lorenzo, and before Lorenzo, there was what’s-his-name…
- Well, yes, that too. So, you see, he’s right, he has no place for a young girl. Not that I am judging the man…
He wasn’t. He’d grown to know people come in all shapes and sizes. If that was Baird’s way to be, and if Stefano, and Michele and what’s-his-name were all right with it, who was he to judge? For a brief moment, he heard Clive’s voice «It’s appalling you should attribute such thoughts to me.» and shuddered. He would never pass judgement on Baird. If he hadn’t met Alec, who knew how he might have ended? The only appalling thing was deliberately hurting other people and of that, Clive was certainly guilty, while Baird was not.
Alec knew Maurice. He wouldn’t sleep for some hours at least. He was thinking too much, too fast, to be able to. Alec, on the other hand, needed his eight hours sleep. He lifted his head to plant a kiss on Maurice’s chin, and curled next to him.
- Good night… – he whispered - I do love you!
Maurice didn’t answer right away, but bent to turn out the light and softly kissed Alec’s shoulder.
- Do sleep. I’ll watch over you…
The bits in bold lettering belong to E. M. Forster, and were taken from my aforementioned 1987 Penguin Edition.
Chapter 3: Your heart is always full
Later, in her adult years, Julie would begin to realize she had been brought up in the most wonderfully unorthodox manner, and how lucky she had been.
Both her adoptive fathers were giving her something unique.
Later, in her adult years, Julie would begin to realize she had been brought up in the most wonderfully unorthodox manner, and how lucky she had been. At eight years old, though, it all seemed fairly normal to her since she knew no other way.
Both her adoptive fathers were giving her something unique. From Alec she learned the love for all living things, and the knowledge of how fragile and beautiful life is. From him, she also learned the infinite ability to wonder at how the world is always new. His education had been mostly earthy and practical and he had a hands-on approach to life, which he passed onto her. He loved singing and had an immense repertoire of folk songs from all over Europe he had learned during the War.
From Maurice, she learned the love of books, of art, of classical music, a profound love of beauty in all its forms. The appreciation of night skies and of the sea, either blue and calm, or grey and stormy. The pleasure of good food. Also a single-minded stubbornness, the ability to never rest until she had done the right thing, and the notion that she would be able to do whatever she put her mind to do.
At school, her teacher found her too unladylike, and scolded her all the time. However, she secretly pitied the poor girl, growing up with two men as her guardians and those boys of that incredible half-Italian woman, how could she have turned out differently?
Julie loved two things since she had learned to read and write: new notebooks and old books. Maurice satisfied quite lavishly both her passions. For the last three years, the ships carrying his deals, weather clear or dark, had been bringing numerous notebooks from all parts of the world, and the most wonderful books. She had a good quantity of children’s books, tales, novels, poetry, and science, all illustrated, and mostly first or special editions.
She had delightful french school notebooks, with a special grid on their pages, so good for taking notes at school, all neatly organized; she had beautiful promotional american notebooks, with colourful covers; she even had russian notebooks, with strange lettering on their covers, probably propaganda slogans.
With Alec, she learned folk tales and songs, and sometimes he sat with her looking through her books about nature and animals and plants, and told her interesting things he knew, for he knew a lot about wild animals and plants. He taught her to sing and insisted she took music lessons and learned to play an instrument. She chose the violin, because, as she stated, it was «difficult to learn and easy to carry». With Maurice, she talked about the stories she read, and she was beginning to study the greek alphabet and latin vocabulary and grammar.
She liked writing little stories, and kept a journal. And she loved reading. Every afternoon, after homework, she sat on the rocking chair in the patio with a book, and she got so involved in what she was reading, she frequently came to dinner a bit dizzy and dreamy eyed. Presently, she was reading A Little Princess. She was actually re-reading it, for she had so loved the book that after turning the last page she had begun it again. She felt she was just like Sara in many ways. Her mother had died when she was born, she had not one papa but two wonderful fathers, she had a doll she talked to, though her Juliet was a rag doll and not a porcelain one like Sara’s Emily, she a vivid imagination, and she loved inventing stories.
- I sometimes wish Sara’s papa had not been dead. That way he could go back to her, and she would have two dads, just like me. – she said, looking very serious, after finishing her first re read of the book – It would be so much better. After all, Mr. Carrisford and Captain Crewe loved each other dearly, didn’t they? Just like Da and yourself, I always imagine.
Maurice had read the book in a hurry after that conversation. He realized he couldn’t give Julie a book to read if he had not read it first. He understood what she had meant then and he had a good laugh about it.
Other things about the book had upset her. She had never known unkindness, much less downright evil or cruelty, so Miss Minchin had been a grim discovery.
- Uncle…? Are there real people as cruel as Miss Minchin is?
She was sitting at the kitchen table reading, while Maurice and Giovanna were keeping sun-dried tomatoes in glass jars, with herbs and olive oil. He perceived some strain in her voice, as if she was scared. He thought about all the different kinds of human cruelty he and Alec had witnessed and experienced in their youth years and during the War, before Malta, and answered in all honesty.
- Yes, love; there are even worse people than Miss Minchin. But you needn’t be afraid, you have me and Da, and Giovanna…
Her voice lightened.
- Oh, I know that, and I’m not afraid! It’s just that it makes me so mad the way she’s mean to Sara and Ermengarde. And to her own sister…I mean, how can one be mean to one’s sister?
Maurice stopped what he was doing. He just stood there, his eyes unfocussed and his expression suddenly sad. He was thinking about the way he had been cruel to his sisters, with no other reason but that he happened to be feeling wretched. He wiped his hands on a dishtowel and knelt next to Julie’s chair to level his eyes with hers.
- You know, Julie, sometimes people are cruel unknowingly. It’s just that they don’t know better. Unhappy people may be cruel to others, even to their own brothers and sisters, only because life is treating them so bad they don’t know where to turn. It is not because they are actually mean, but because they are muddled.
Julie listened with the utmost attention, taking his words in and trying to make sense of the information. Maurice’s eyes were shining as if he was about to cry.
- Like when people at the market mumble about Giovanna having some kind of affair with you, because they just can’t get their heads around the notion that a man and a woman can live in the same house and not be in love with each other?
He was rather accustomed to the girl’s wit and sensibility. She had always been encouraged to ask questions openly and always had them truthfully answered. Both Maurice and Alec agreed that making mysteries of simple things and keeping children in the dark was wrong. So, he smiled at her example. Giovanna said nothing but he could sense she was attentively following the conversation.
- That is exactly the case. Those people are being mean, not because they want to hurt us, but because they are faced with something beyond their grasp. That is why none of us cares about what they say.
Julie’s expression became pensive.
- Maybe Miss Minchin had a cruel father or an unloving boyfriend when she was young…
- Maybe she had… - admitted Maurice, enchanted with the fact that he was having a deep conversation about a children’s novel with an eight-year-old girl.
Taking Julie’s hand in his, he changed subject.
- I need a big favour from you.
Julie’s eyes widened.
- Oh…! What is it?
– You know, there’s a young girl coming to work for me. She’s Mr. Baird’s niece and her mother just died, so she was left with no other family.
Julie’s eyes grew even larger.
- Oh, I see. Poor girl!
- Yes, she must feel very sad. In addition, coming to live so far away from her old home, with people she doesn’t know, must be rather scary, don’t you think?
- Rather, yes… - replied the girl, very seriously.
- Her name is Angela. She is a bit older than you are, she’s sixteen, but me and Da were hoping you could help us make her feel at home. I expect she will feel better if she sees another girl, someone closer to her own age, instead of just grown up people, most of them men.
- Of course, I’ll do anything you ask me to. I believe I will like knowing an older girl. Most girls at school are so silly!
She jumped to the floor, her book under her arm.
- Giovanna, shall I call the boys? – she asked – It’s almost tea time and we have to set the table…
- Yes, please, love, do that… - the woman answered, closing the last jar tightly – I’ll put the kettle on right away.
When Julie left the kitchen, Giovanna looked at Maurice. He had an adoring look on his face and a half smile.
- You know, Maurice, she’s so sensible it sometimes scares me a bit. She’s so young…
- I believe all kids have the potential to be like that. One just has to raise them the right way… All things clearly explained, no secrets, no lies, responsibility handled bit by bit, and all our love invested in them. Of course, one’s heart needs to be full, but mine is, to the brim…
Chapter 4: Angela
Angela arrived on a sunny Saturday. She tried to look strong, but it was plain she was scared and tired from the journey.
I made a moodboard for Angela. She was a tricky girl to create.
From the moment he told Baird he would help, Maurice took all matters regarding young Angela in his hands. He found flaws in every measure poor Baird had taken or had failed taking.
- What do you mean you don’t know how she’ll travel? Are you out of your mind, man? Do you intend a sixteen-year-old child to find out on her own how to cross the Continent to come here?
Baird seemed lost. He had no idea about what a sixteen-year-old girl might or might not be able to do on her own.
- The girl is clever; my sister always said so in her letters…
- Se may be clever, but she’s a child! We’re talking of crossing the Channel and travelling through France, not taking a walk in the park!
Maurice took over; it was what he always did.
- I’ll book her a passage in a ship from… Where do you say she comes from? Aberdeen? – he leaned over the map to find the place - That’s close to the end of the world! Still, there’s a port. I’ll book her from Aberdeen to Calais. I know a fellow there; I can call in a few favours. Don’t worry, he’s a sound fellow, wife, two girls about the same age as her, she’ll be all right. They can take her in and get her on the train to Paris the next day.
Baird was dumbfounded and only nodded in acquiescence, making unintelligible sounds, unable to keep up with Maurice’s energy.
- I know someone in Paris, too. A woman, solid reputation, no need to worry. She’ll escort the girl to Marseille and get her on a boat. We will be waiting for her here, of course. She’ll take three, maybe four days to arrive. Will give her time to think and get used to the idea.
He wrote down all the details for Baird to wire to the girl, places, hours, names and addresses. Made all the necessary arrangements, all the needed contacts, booked boats and trains. Then, he set Baird on his way and put his own people in motion. That meant, naturally, Alec and Giovanna.
Alec found her a room in a very respectable boarding house, where the younger nurses from the Clinic lived. The owner was a motherly middle-aged Sicilian woman that kept a hawkish eye on the girls «because their mothers are not here to do it ». It was as safe as convent, maybe even safer, he admitted. Giovanna looked around the room and made it homelike and pretty with a few well-chosen additions. Julie sent a few books and a sweet little handwritten wellcome note.
Maurice had finally rented a small office in the downtown area, to separate work from home, as he had wanted to do for some time. It was a small first floor, with a nice anteroom, where, besides a couple of comfortable chairs, he had a desk placed for the girl, the most modern Underwood typewriter, and a nice and shining file cabinet. From the anteroom, by a small and dark corridor, one reached a beautiful office with a balcony where he could easily spend the rest of his life looking at the sea, but also have his private conferences with all the people he preferred to keep away from his family life.
Angela arrived on a sunny Saturday. She tried to look strong, but it was plain she was scared and tired from the journey. The last few days had given her the time to compose herself after the shock of her mother’s death and the following turmoil of having no other living relative and having to move across half continent. She was nonetheless a little apprehensive about going to live with an uncle she had no recollection of, in a place completely new to her.
She was rather pretty, with reddish blond, wavy hair, in a bob cut that gave her a sweet youthful look. She did not wear black, and she explained why.
- Mother always made me promise I’d never wear black when she died. So I do not. – her voice was sweet and clear, with a delightful Scottish accent.
She favoured light colours, blue, pink and white, she said. Her white straw cloche hat made her blue eyes even brighter. She was captivated with the idea of having her own room and not living with Uncle, and loved her room from the moment she set foot in it.
- Oh, isn’t this beautiful! And a little balcony too. Oh, and the sea at the end of the street! How can I ever thank you for being so kind?
Angela was a welcome addition to the family circle. Now Julie spent the best part of the day at school, and Giovanna missed her so terribly she thanked God for Angela on every other Sunday. Her mornings were now so empty, and even slightly dull… She had almost nothing to do in the mornings. She had found herself talking to Smoke. Young Angela, with her promptness to learn, her eagerness to taste and experiment new recipes, her very nice way of putting on an apron as soon as she arrived and helping, was a blessing.
With only Maurice and herself for lunch on most days, Giovanna only went to the market once or twice a week and came home empty handed. They lived on a rather steep street and most market sellers and shops in La Valletta delivered for a small extra fee. Moreover, Maurice had been adamant about it since the very beginning.
- I will not have you carrying groceries and things up the street. There is no need for that. You are not a servant, though I wouldn’t have it either if you were. It’s too hard for you.
- Then it will be hard for someone else. Really, Maurice, there is no need…
- There is a difference. That someone else will be paid to do it. You may even tip them generously if you feel you ought to. Look at it this way: we will be keeping people working and we will make the economy grow. It is a good thing.
He said the same about the woman who came once a week, for an in depth house cleaning. Also about the one who took the clothes to wash and press. They were keeping someone working and making the economy grow. That, however, did little for her feeling of having too much time in her hands and very little to do. The house was furnished in a rather Spartan manner, easy and quick to clean. She prepared lavish breakfasts, took her time afterwards, clearing the table and washing the dishes, perused Maurice’s cookbooks to find new recipes, and made delicious lunches, even if they were only two for lunch. She crocheted intricate lace patterns to embellish the house linen and knitted winter jumpers for each one in the family. She had even taken to do needlepoint, something she had not done since her teens.
Angela’s freckly face and her Scottish accent gave an air of quiet respectability to Maurice’s anteroom. She was clever, and learned quickly. In a few weeks she had everything perfectly organized, had made a comprehensive index of contacts, and she knew when every ship was due, both to arrive and to leave. Maurice found out she had an amazing memory for faces and names. No one could enter the office without passing her inspection first; she was more effective than a watchdog and an armed guard combined. Angela was at the office at nine o’clock sharp, to take the phone calls and keep the books for the visible part of his import business. She also kept track of the obscure part; she had an astonishing capacity to separate the one from the other.
Moreover, Angela understood perfectly the work she was doing and it took her just a few weeks to decipher the nature of her employer’s family circle. It didn’t make the slightest difference to her. She had clearly developed a soft spot for Maurice and she thought Alec so sweet there was no way she would find it in her heart to judge any of them.
Maurice’s daily routine changed too. He now spent most mornings at the office. He left after breakfast to take Julie to school, and then walked to the office by the longest way possible, breathing deeply the salt sea air and ever admiring the magnificent view of the harbour, as part of his daily fitness routine.
He would arrive at about a quarter, sometimes even half past nine, and would find Angela typing at an alarming speed, all his papers in order, everything perfectly dusted and fresh flowers, mostly pink carnations, in a small glass vase on his desk. Flowers were expensive in Malta, but his new secretary quickly learned about how he liked to keep the economy growing, so she had made a contract with a flower shop and managed a fair monthly price. «Flowers always brighten your day.» she said when he first noticed the little addition.
At eleven, she usually brought him a cup of tea, and they both went over the things that needed his agreement, or his attention. He thought it delicious to hear that sweet lilting voice and the peculiarities of her vocabulary:
- Mister M., you know, that man from the Customs Office, called to remember of the ship sailing in later today. Trying to catch us off-guard, he was! Ah, but don’t you worry; I can see through him…I swear he’s always trying to make me spill the beans. As if…!
Maurice found her amazing, and was genuine in his praise of her work.
- Oh, Angela, you are a gem! That man is a pain, but you can twist him around your little finger much better than I ever could! How did I manage for so long without you I’ll never know!
Then, he usually went out, mid-morning being the best hour to meet the people he needed to see; and as a rule would not return. He went home for lunch and took the afternoons off, unless there was something urgent. The girl left at about one p. m., which suited her just fine, for she had plenty of time to read, take care of her clothes, keep her room tidy and have big walks.
Angela missed her mother, of course. They had been everything to each other for as long as the girl could remember. Still she was very young, and her life had taken a turn that had certainly been for the better. She felt she could leave her happy memories of Mother in the past with her childhood and teen years. She was working, her salary was not bad at all, and she had the most perfect employer in the world, at least she thought so. She had even gained a substitute family, including a cat, and she grew to love them all dearly.
She did not remember her father, who had died in the War when she was only three, and had never had an older man around to look up to as father figure. Uncle Roderick was rather sweet; she had lunch with him every Saturday in a very pretty Hotel, but he had not a fatherly bone in his body and was so gauche it was even funny. Maurice, on the other hand, was, to her eyes, absolute perfection. He was handsome, good-natured, kind, always talked in a low, soft voice, had the most reassuring and contagious laugh, was never cross and appreciated her work immensely, besides being very protective towards her. That he engaged mostly in near illegal affairs or that he was as good as married to another man was of no significance to her. He was a fine man and that was all she cared about.
Chapter 5: Through a glass, darkly
They had these talks occasionally, whenever Maurice was afraid he might be doing more harm than good.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
«For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.» He put down the book and repeated the words. Then, he began to think aloud, as he frequently did when Alec was close and he felt uneasy.
- Through a glass, darkly, that’s how some people see us. It pains me to think Angela may suffer because of that.
Alec knew the signs of worry. Maurice’s labyrinthine way of thinking about some things was rather transparent to him, because he could follow the intricate road he was taking just by looking at his face. Maurice might not put them in words but he could not hide his thoughts from the man who loved him and had shared his bed for so many years.
- Out with it, Maurice! What is worrying you? What’s the trouble with Angela?
- There is no trouble with Angela; she is perfect, she is better than perfect. But she is so young… You saw her today, playing hopscotch with Julie and Santo; she is almost a child. I am only afraid that her working for me may possibly damage her reputation.
Alec tried to make him see reason, calm down, not go expecting a blow before it even threatened to fall.
- You worry too much. I don’t believe anyone would think, much less say anything less than proper. You both work in an open office; anyone can go there at any time, the door is open… The girl’s only relative trusts you. She lives at Mamma Rondina, the most absolute terror of young men! Of all men I’d say if she did not make an exception for you.
He lit a couple of cigarettes and gave one to Maurice. They stood for some minutes on the balcony, smoking in silence. Then they went back in.
- Maurice, you had a soft spot for that girl ever since you heard about her. You went out of your way to make her life easier, to make her forget about all her troubles, to give her all she had lost. She looks up to you as if you were her father. One would have to be really nasty to have second thoughts about you and Angela.
Maurice smiled, a sad and doubtful smile. He knew the world was quite well provided with nasty people. It was almost midnight on what had been a glorious summer Sunday. Everybody else was asleep and they’d stayed up late, talking, as it was one of Alec’s infrequent Sundays off.
- If anyone had told me, all those years ago, that you had so much love to give inside you I would have not believed it for a second!
At these words from Alec, Maurice smirked.
- Was I that impossible then? – he asked, though he knew the answer.
- Were you not! All high and mighty…!
That was said in a light and well-meaning teasing tone, but Maurice left his chair to kneel in front of Alec, looking up to him and holding his hands.
- I was, wasn’t I? I still feel a kind of delayed shame about it…Wonder what you saw in me… - he sounded subdued, as he always did when the conversation moved that way.
Alec leaned forward to kiss him. He couldn’t begin to imagine what it had been like to spend a whole year without love, without hope of ever finding love, broken hearted, with nothing to look forward to but a life of desolation, and with no one to turn to. Even now, years away, he wanted to reach out to the younger Maurice, hold him in his arms, and kiss the pain away. Silly thing, really, he knew, but could not control it. He could still remember the desperate look in Maurice’s blue eyes the first time he had ever seen him. Angry and gentle both together, he’d told Maurice back then, but he knew now it had been only hopelessness. What had Alec seen in him back then?
- Your eyes did it, that sad light in your eyes. I wanted to make them sparkle with joy…– he kissed Maurice again, playfully – And your looks, definitely. You were the most beautiful man I had ever seen. You still are, of course, you’ll always be…
- I’ve been so happy with you I need to share it with others. I feel the urge to share all the good life has handed me. I remember my being so cruel and bitter before, I need to make some kind of amends for that. Though sometimes I feel that no matter how good I can be now; I can never cancel all the harm I’ve done.
Alec knew his lover’s self-confidence had a few cracks. You cannot bypass the first twenty-four years of a person’s life. Maurice had come a long way, yet he still felt a twinge of guilt for things said and done back then.
They had these talks occasionally, whenever Maurice grew afraid he might be doing more harm than good. They’d had it when they arrived in La Valletta and found out Giovanna’s husband had died and she had been left with three little boys. Then, the natural thing for them to do had seemed to be taking her under their protection, just as she had done with them during the War. They knew it might be misunderstood, and it certainly had been so for some people. After a few months though, they had formed an alliance of mutual care and it had turned into a bond so deep as if she had been their sister.
They’d had it again after Julie was born and her mother had unexpectedly died a couple of days after giving birth, leaving the baby alone in the world. It was unusual for a single man to adopt a baby, difficult even, but not impossible. Maurice had always wanted children; he knew all the ways of making the laws serve them, and even the ways to bend them slightly. Again, some people had interpreted it the wrong way. Now, naturally, they could hardly remember what it had been like before having her.
They were having it now again, because of Angela. She was getting to be as protective with Maurice as he was with her, to Alec’s great amusement. One of Maurice’s business contacts had taken to calling her «the female dragon» (and after seeing how young and pretty she was had changed it to «the female baby dragon») for her ruthlessness. If she thought Maurice was tired or worried, or if her instinct told her it was the kind of deal Maurice would not want to touch, she’d simply refuse to pass the call to him, and no amount of begging or threatening could break her.
«I am sorry, sir, but Mr. Scudder is terribly busy at the moment. If you’ll be so kind as to leave your number with me, Mr. Scudder will be in touch as soon as possible.» Her voice was delicate but firm, the words so final no one had the nerve to insist, even when they could tell by her tone that «as soon as possible» meant «never». Her instinct was quite good. When she said «You wouldn’t want to have anything to do with that fellow, he’s a blaggard of the worst kind, I can tell just by the sound of his voice.», he usually took her word for it, besides laughing at her amusing and archaic vocabulary. The fact that he had built over the years an extensive net of contacts that kept each other in balance didn’t hurt either.
Alec caressed Maurice’s face with just one fingertip, ever so lightly, following the line of his jaw, then the contour of his lips, moving up to trace his closed eyes, as if he was drawing his features with his outstretched hand.
- Don’t torture yourself over the past. It brings you nothing but worthless suffering. You harmed no one. Both your sisters are happily married and suffered nothing because of you. You instructed your brother in law to set a trust fund for his children from your part of your parents’ inheritance. What better evidence do you need of how good a person you are than the way everybody that counts loves you? Giovanna adores you, Julie worships you and Angela would probably kill for you. To say nothing of me...
Maurice laid his head on Alec’s knees, his arms around his lover’s waist. He felt his face burning and a strange lump in his throat. Alec’s words of praise often had that effect on him, bringing once more the memory of their first year together, when a praise from Alec’s lips meant the world to him. He drew in a deep breath to push away the tears. He felt light-hearted and relieved now. It did him good to talk to Alec about his worries.
Later, much later, in bed, before turning out the light, he opened his Bible, to read yet another couple or verses.
«Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.» He curled close to Alec, and repeated the words to himself, counting them. «Thirteen more words, so simple, so clear. Pure poetry…» he thought, remembering previous readings « And all the wisdom of love in them, again.» Closing his eyes, he drifted into sleep enveloped in Alec’s warmth.
1. The bits in bold lettering belong to E. M. Forster, and were taken from my aforementioned 1987 Penguin Edition.
2. King James Bible is, of course, King James Bible. Translation can be a work of art.
3. The general title and that of Chapter 3 were taken from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. The full paragraph is this:
“If nature has made you for a giver, your hands are born open, and so is your heart; and though there may be times when your hands are empty, your heart is always full, and you can give things out of that--warm things, kind things, sweet things--help and comfort and laughter--and sometimes gay, kind laughter is the best help of all.”
I took the text from Project Gutenberg, as the book I have is a translation.