Alec had the first day shift that day. He’d just arrived home in time for tea and was going up to change clothes when Giovanna called him from the kitchen door. She looked mysterious and asked him to be silent.
- Do come and look! Make no noise; you have to see this…!
The kitchen smelled deliciously of fresh bake. Her boys were setting the table for tea. Julie and Maurice were sitting side by side at the other end of the table, with a slate and a piece of chalk, completely oblivious to the world around them. He was drawing capital letters, in clear print, and she was naming them, one after the other, clearly captivated.
- And this one?
- This one is an S…
- As in?
- As in Sun! – the little girl clapped her hands – Oh, this is so funny! Can we do this again tomorrow?
Maurice looked up and saw Alec and Giovanna, but Alec nodded for him to keep quiet. Julie asked again.
- Uncle, can we do this again tomorrow? Oh, please say yes!
He hugged her smiling.
- Yes, we can do this again tomorrow, and every day from tomorrow on, until you can read on your own. Happy?
She kissed his face and jumped to the floor, running to meet Alec. She was wearing overalls and a knitted jumper, and her curls were tied back in a ponytail.
- Da, look, I’m learning how to read! – showed him the slate – See here? That is an S as in Sun, and in Sand! Oh, and in Sea!
Her big brown eyes were wide open and shining, her face was flushed pink with enthusiasm and she couldn’t stand still, she was actually jumping up and down. Alec picked her up to kiss her.
- That’s my clever girl! You’ll be reading in no time.
Still holding the little girl, he kissed Maurice and looked around in a playful mood.
- Don’t tell me that you’ve all turned so bookish nobody remembered tea time! I’m so famished I could eat a horse!
Julie put her arms around Alec’s neck, and looking very serious, answered:
- We’re all out of horses, Da. There’s only tea, bread and butter, ham and cake. And oranges, we brought oranges from the market.
He put her down laughing.
- That will have to do then, won’t it? You go help the boys and Giovanna and let me talk to your Uncle.
- I helped bake the cake. I cracked the eggs. – she informed, going around the table.
Alec was standing behind Maurice’s chair so he bent over to kiss him again.
- I like having to bend down to kiss you from time to time. Makes me feel tall… - and sitting beside him on the chair Julie had been on – Isn’t she too small to be learning that?
- I thought so too, but she has been so curious about Santo’s schoolwork! She kept asking him to read things to her and he was getting edgy. I asked her if she wanted to learn the letters and she essentially jumped into my arms. She’s very clever, completely driven and it’s like a game to her. Really, a bit every day and she’ll be reading in no time.
- And do you know what to do? I’d be totally lost…
- For now, I guess the slate will do. I’ll cable home for a book or two. I’ll take the boys to school tomorrow and ask one of the teachers which are best. A few of the younger ones are quite nice. I’ll learn as we progress, I dare say…
- You are wonderful! – he held his friend, pressing softly against his back – I mean it. I sometimes wonder what have I done in my life to deserve you.
- Don’t. You’re making me blush. – he actually looked and sounded embarrassed - I’ll get conceited and you’ll stop loving me then.
- Never! – Alec winked at him – You were a terrible snob when I met you and I loved you all the same. Let’s have tea…
They moved around the table to join the others. Giovanna was cutting thin slices from a loaf of bread, Santo was buttering each one, and setting it on a plate. Mario and Angelo, Santo’s older brothers, were setting the cups, and Julie was bringing a small basket full of oranges. The big china teapot was already on the table. The pinkish ham smelled wonderfully and the cake was still warm, its brown surface sprinkled with sugar.
- Now, that’s what I call a beautiful tea. – said Alec – Let’s tuck in, I’m still famished.
Alec was not one for metaphors, he was a practical, sensible man, and he left the «poetries», as he called it, for Maurice. Yet he had an intense feeling of wellbeing and cosiness during meals, when they were all together around the freshly scrubbed kitchen table, the same where Giovanna or Maurice, or both, had been preparing the food, and they were eating and talking, and conversations crossed and mixed. Even in his wildest youth dreams, when he had tried to imagine what it would be like sharing his life with Maurice, he had never been able to picture such a noisy, sunny and peopled bliss.
Smoke, the cat, appeared, out of nowhere apparently and climbed onto Alec’s knee. He had grown quite a lot, and was now a big and graceful cat, his fur a pretty shade of bluish grey and white paws, as if he was wearing white shoes. Alec scratched behind the cat’s ears and talked in the same low, soft voice he used with patients and babies.
- Where have you been? Leaving hairs all over my side of the bed, no doubt…
The cat purred, affectionately nibbling at the man’s fingers.
- Hmm, that’s as good as a confession. Ouch! That’s my finger! Down you go! Go catch some mice or something…