Chapter 1: Slate and chalk
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…
Chapter 2: A as in apple
Julie had not been kept in darkness; she had flourished in the bright light, and it showed.
Julie’s learning was rather swift. She mastered the upper case alphabet in a couple of weeks, and progressed to syllables, all that with only the slate and the chalk. Then, it was time for lower case letters and she had the time of her life playing with them.
- So this is the big A, and that is the little a, is it?
- Yes. Every letter has a big, it’s called upper case, and a little.
- The big goes in the beginning, is it?
- Yes it is. See here, this is your name. A big J in the beginning, and then the little ones, u, l, i, and e. Two syllables. - he wrote it down on the slate.
She was spellbound.
- Want to try and copy it? – he asked.
- Oh, may I, really? – and she tried her best. The result was crooked but recognizable. – Let’s keep it and show Da when he comes home, can we?
For the next weeks she wanted to know how every word started. Giovanna, who spent the mornings with her and usually took her to the market, had to tell her all the letters for the vegetables they brought from the market. Then, Julie would jump around the kitchen sink, chanting the names of the vegetables and fruits with tunes of her own making.
- A as in apple, T as in tomato, O as in onion and orange! May I have an apple before lunch, Giovanna?
- Here, have this little one, but wash it first. While you are eating it, we have a bit of silence. Some chatterbox you’ve turned out to be!
Alec was home that day for lunch, and they were all four in the kitchen. The boys were at school. Julie was helping to set the table, and blabbering in a low voice:
- S is for spoon, F is for fork and N is for knife…
- No, Julie, K is for knife… - corrected Maurice putting the glasses on the table.
- But we don’t say it with a K! – she protested.
Maurice tried his best not to laugh, but the effort was not enough to allow him to speak. Julie was looking at him with a most inquisitive expression and Giovanna actually had tears in her eyes and was almost breathless with silent laughter.
- That’s still the way it is, Julie. – Maurice finally managed to say concocting an almost serious face – There are some tricky bits about reading, somethings are not what they seem.
- Ooooh, I like that… - was the thrilled answer, and Julie’s eyes sparkled like two big brown stars, so like Alec’s she could have been his daughter.
- You’ve created a monster! – laughed Alec, though he was enchanted with how clever their little girl was – Now deal with it…
- Don’t laugh; she’s driving me crazy… - he complained, even though the adoring expression on his face proclaimed the opposite. Alec could tell he was enjoying himself immensely.
Maurice did order a few books, having asked one of the teachers in the boy’s school about it, and by the time they arrived, the little girl was reading three letter words and trying to trace letters on the slate herself. She could write her name in print quite well, by then.
She had such fascination about the letters and how they joined to make words, she had even taken to spell as she skipped rope after her afternoon nap.
P – A – N is pan
P – I – N is pin
P – O – T is pot
P – A – T is pat
- Now, try turning the words around! – Maurice suggested with a playful smile.
She stopped, frowning.
- Starting with the last letter…
She stood very still, her fair eyebrows knitted in deep concentration. Then her face lighted up and she started skipping once more.
N – A – P is nap
N – I – P is nip
T – O – P is top
T – A – P is tap
He could read in her face the enchantment she was in: some words could be turned around and still read, they were still words, only different. There was no end to it apparently; there was no end to what one could do with letters and words.
Maurice had never imagined that learning could seem so fascinating. He could see now the difference from his younger self. Julie had not been kept in darkness; she had flourished in the bright light, and it showed.
Every afternoon, after lunch, as soon as the kitchen was clean, she and Maurice sat at the head of the table to work for an hour or so. He was not very demanding with her, after all she was only five, but she was very inquisitive and was hungry for new things to learn.
The new books had pretty pictures and many new words. She read the first pages but that was not enough. She made up her own lines about the pictures and wanted Maurice to write them down, in print so she could read them. She asked the most terrible questions. He sometimes pitied her future teachers.
- Why is it that dog has one g and doggy has two? We only read one…
- I don’t know, love. – he admitted valiantly - I know it is like that because I learned it in school, but I don’t know why it is like that. You’ll have to wait until September and ask the teacher about that one.
- Oh, I see. Teachers know more things than uncles do, is it?
- About words, yes. Different people know different things. Your Da knows about healing people, Giovanna knows about cooking and making pretty things…
- And you know about stars, and stories, and playing the piano, and reading books. – she added with a big smile – I am going to read books too! And I am going to write books. Uncle, can girls write books?
First difficult question, he thought. He’d had the answer to that one ready since the day they had taken new-born Julie in, though.
- Girls can do everything they put their minds to, Julie. Write books, drive motorcars, climb mountains, command ships, fly airplanes, everything.
Julie looked up at him, her eyes full of delight. Maurice picked her up in his arms and whirled her around.
- Time for your nap now, Julie! Let’s go up and I’ll read you a story. Look, Smoke is coming up with us; I guess he’s in for a nap too.
Chapter 3: Betelgeuse and Rigel
«We knew this day would come. We talked about it when we took her in.»
They were lying in bed still catching their breath, sweaty and pleasurably tired. Their lovemaking had no longer the thrilling edge of danger, or of power asserting. It was by now a reassuring affair ever strengthening the bond between them, something at once passionate and contained, practiced to perfection, a unique blend of joy, comfort and flame. They could map each other’s body with their eyes closed, and knew each other’s pace so well they moved together like in a slow, deliberate dance.
Maurice was resting his head on Alec’s chest, listening to his racing heartbeat gradually slowing and feeling his friend’s fingers stroking his hair. Alec sighed, a deep, contented sigh.
- Ooh, that was good! – and, in the silence that followed, his finger traced the contour of Maurice’s ear in a leisurely caress - Our baby is growing so fast…
- Yes she is. – Maurice answered. Alec’s skin beneath his face was warm and salty when he kissed - Soon she will be going out to school every morning, and will never again be ours alone. I know all parents must go through this, but I feel as if we are going to lose her a bit. Even if just for a few hours a day.
- We must let her stretch her little wings and begin to fly. I’m a little scared about that, you know…
- I know. I am too. We’ve sheltered her as much as we could, but we are such a very uncommon family. She’ll hear things, she’ll start asking difficult questions… - he turned his head to face Alec – How can we stop all that hurting her?
Alec touched his face, half-smiling. He had almost forgotten that look, those blue eyes looking up at him like that, wide with doubt and fear. It reminded him so of their first time together… He felt a great wave of tenderness sweep over him.
- Oh, do come up and let me kiss you properly! – and after kissing Maurice as if he had just saved him from drowning, he added – I’m so used to having you around I sometimes forget to tell you how beautiful you are. Every bit as beautiful as the first time I saw you.
They held each other in silence for long minutes. Then, cautiously, Alec said in his softest tone:
- We knew this day would come. We talked about it when we took her in. We will have to tell her the truth in a way she will understand. A little at a time, as she asks, never more than that… but we cannot lie to her, and we certainly cannot hide the truth…
A child’s cry sounded. Maurice jumped up, hastily put on his pyjama bottoms and dressing gown and ran out of the room.
- I’ll go, you have to sleep. It’s probably just a bad dream… - he could hear the difference, it was fear, not pain.
Julie no longer slept next door; she had a room across the corridor. Maurice knocked on the door. He had taught Julie to always knock on a closed door and wait for an answer before opening it, so he always did that.
- Julie…? – he called.
- Uncle…? There was… there was a big bear… - was the sobbing answer.
He went in and turned on the feeble night light. The little girl was sitting up on her bed, eyes wide open, and tears running down her cheeks. Maurice sat on the edge of the bed and hugged her.
- There, there… It was only a bad dream, love.
- But there was a big bear, and he was going to eat you and Da, he said so…
She climbed out of bed, nestling in the safety of his arms, and burying her face in the folds of the man’s dressing gown. He let her cry a bit, fondling her golden curls, one arm reassuringly around her.
- It’s all gone now, see? There is no bear. I’m here. Da is sleeping, I just saw him. It was only a bad dream, and what do we say to bad dreams?
Protected by the familiar presence, Julie looked up and grinned, tears still in her eyes.
- No bad dreams wanted here, thank you! – she recited – Uncle, can we go to the window to see the stars?
It was their customary cure for bad dreams. He’d been afraid of the dark when he was small, so had devised a way to stop her having the same fear, showing her how beautiful the dark could be.
- Of course we can. – he wrapped Julie in her dressing gown, carried her to the open window and sat on the window seat with the little girl on his knees, his big hand carefully keeping her little feet warm. She was used to that and tucked her feet better under his hand.
– Look at them. Do you still know the names? Can you find Orion?
She perused the night sky attentively and then pointed.
- Yes, there he is. I can see the belt there…
- So, above the belt and to the left there is…
- Betel… Betel… Oh, it’s Betel something, I know!
- Yes, that’s it, Betelgeuse! And below the belt to the right is Rigel, right?
- Right. Very good! Now let’s close this window before we both freeze, and you are going back to your bed to sleep. Do you want Juliet in with you?
Juliet was a cloth doll Giovanna had made for her. Julie had recently declared she was too grown up to sleep with her doll, but she relapsed sometimes.
- Yes, please. Just in case the bear returns and wants to hurt her too…
Maurice gave her the doll. She hugged her firmly, whispering «You are safe in here with me, Juliet!», and he tucked them both in and kissed both good-night.
- I’ll leave the night light on. You may turn it out if you want to later. Good night, Julie. Good night, Juliet.
- ‘night, Uncle. – she said drowsily.
He went back to their room. Alec was smoking at the window, and turned when he heard Maurice return.
- Bad dream? – he asked putting out his cigarette.
- Bad dream. The usual one, the bear that wants to eat us both. All patched up now. A bit of stargazing, Juliet in with her, night light on…
- Where can she have picked the idea of the bear?
- There is a story about a bear in one of our storybooks, «Snow-White and Rose-Red» I believe… and has a picture of the bear too. Anyway, don’t fret, if it wasn’t the bear it would be something else. All kids have bad dreams. I had. She’s been learning so much lately, it was probably all the excitement.
- I never cease to wonder at the way you know these things. You are an amazing parent!
He wrapped his arms around Alec’s waist and pulled him close.
- My Alec, my wonderful man, that only happens because I have you. You are an amazing parent too… Come on, let’s go back to bed, you need to sleep a few hours. You go in at four a.m. and it’s almost midnight.