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.