Very hesitating and frightened author's foreword:
I hesitated for months before doing this, though it all started here, actually. This fic started it all, for it got me to write fic. Still, Charioteer fic seems so much above my league... So, Ralph here is only 19, maybe 20. I thought he deserved a bit of family love before those terrible years. And a few good memories to hang on to in distress. And I believe he'd get on pretty well with Maurice since they have a lot in common. Ralph always seemed to me like a broken version of Maurice, so it's only fair he gets to see what an unbroken version of Ralph might look like. As for dear Maddox, he is more an idea than a real character. I did read David Blaize a couple of times (I had to, right?) but that can hardly compete with 30 years of reading Maurice and 20 something of reading The Charioteer...
From the first week of working with Maurice, Angela had learned the rule about his surname. Scudder was fine, it was the name he had used since 1913, it was the name everyone in Malta knew him by, but it was actually Alec's family name and not his. Maurice's real surname was Hall, and only a select handful of people knew that.
- So, if someone asks for Hall, it falls into one of these three groups. One is family. That will be my brother in law, Chapman. He will say his name first, and request the call in advance. He is all right; you can put him through right away. Two, close friends from England. They are about half a dozen; I’ll give you the list. They too will volunteer their names right away. Three, close enemies. Those will not say who they are. Tell them they have the wrong number.
During the four years she had been working there, she had put through Mr. Chapman once, and one person from the list another time. She had told two unidentified men they had the wrong number. And now she had received a call from someone who had given his name, was not on the list, and asked for Hall. The man had a nice voice, and her instinct told her maybe Maurice had forgotten to list him. In a split second she decided he was worth a try. She had given an appropriate excuse «I'll have to see if Mr. Hall has arrived, sir, if you'll be so kind to wait a few minutes...» and the man, who clearly had been expecting that kind of cautious answer, had promised to call again in half an hour. As soon as she put the telephone down, she knocked on the office’s door.
- Yes? Come in…
- I’m sorry to disturb, but I have had a call from a Mr. Maddox. He is not on the list you gave me, but he asked for Mr. Hall, he gave me his name right away, and he sounded right, so I thought I’d better ask… He expected me to, in fact he actually told me to remember you that you've met him in London, about six or seven years ago. He was very polite, charming even... And he’ll be calling again soon. Shall I put him through? The line is going rather bad though...
Maddox…? Not a common name, was it? Maurice knew the name but couldn’t place it. The last time he and Alec had been to England, seven years ago, after his mother's death, they had been out quite a lot: one of his then recent acquaintances was a wild party goer and at least Maurice had been certain he wouldn't meet undesirable people in those places, the kind of people he had left behind before the War – he remembered how the noise had given him a few nasty headaches though. And he had been introduced to so many fellows he could hardly recall a quarter of them!
Maddox… And all of a sudden he saw the man. Nice fellow, around his own age, half french, wasn't he? Handsome, amazing good taste for neckties, for clothes in general if you were going to notice that, slight limp, beautiful voice, all seeing eyes, one perpetually raised eyebrow, silent, but you could see his mind working feverishly… He had the faintest recollection of giving his card, one of the cards he rarely gave, with his real name, the address in Malta, and the telephone number, that was still the same for he had had the telephone transferred from home to the office, not to Maddox, who Maurice was quite certain though him a stuck-up bore, but to his friend, oh what was his name? Daniel? No, it was another biblical character... David! Writer, extremely handsome, extremely likeable.
He was intrigued, to put it mildly: what would the man want of him? He didn't look the kind of fellow to engage in dodgy business... Still, he was safe to put through.
- Yes, I know him. Pass the call when it comes. I’ll wait if I need to.
There was no need to wait; the call came right away. The line was terrible, full of crackles and whistles, he got less than half of the talk and had to ask numerous questions just to understand the essential of it.
As soon as he put the telephone down, he had a talk with Angela, who had been observing his increasingly knitted brow and puzzled look.
- In a few days, there'll be a young man arriving from England. His name is Langton, Laughton, Lanyon… something along those lines. I didn’t get his first name, the line really was a mess. These wretched machines sometimes give us more work than they save! He’ll ask for me, for Hall I mean. See that he stays if I’m out, and warn me right away if I’m in.
She made a mock salute, smiling.
- Aye, Captain!
- But first, get in touch with the operator to see if you can reverse the call, and cable our office address to the address connected to that number. I gave it, but I sincerely doubt he got it!
That same afternoon, at home, as Julie and Santo were setting the table in the warm kitchen, Mario had been sent to the dock to get Maurice's newspapers from the last ferry, Angelo was taking Madina to the pictures – lately love seemed to be enough to feed him and he rarely had dinner at home – Alec was showering upstairs, and he was watching over the big pan of chicken rice, he warned Giovanna.
- We’ll be having a staying guest soon. A young man, and the friend who is sending him said he needs fattening up a bit. I’ll leave that in your capable hands, he'll be staying maybe some two weeks, enough time to recover from whatever he's been through, so I expect he'll like a bit of motherly care...
- Are we opening an orphanage? - she asked, stirring some extra sugar in the lemonade jug – Clean napkins, Santo! Go put those in the laundry basket, they are covered in tomato stains, they look like they've been involved in some gruesome murder!
- You sound just like Alec. – Maurice made his most earnest face, eyes wide open, and for a moment, he looked like a little boy making excuses to his mother – I sometimes think I am the only one with a heart in this house! No. At least I wasn't told anything about missing parents. From what I gathered, he got into some trouble and they will not care for him, so they are alive. I didn’t get the whole story, the line was appalling, so I don't really know what can have led to parents not caring for their only son, but I’ll get a letter with the details…
Giovanna laughed, interrupting what she was certain would be a very passionate defence of the unknown boy in question.
- Oh, Alec is right; it’s so easy to tease you! As if you didn’t know me! Bring the boy in! We’ll put him in Alec’s room, it’s high time someone actually sleeps in there.
Alec, entering the kitchen, sniffed around, looking amused.
- Someone actually sleeps where, may I ask? Do I smell a mystery?
- No, it's chicken rice – answered Julie with a laugh, extinguishing the gas fire under the rice pan – and we almost lost it! Uncle is too worried about some new lame duck who's about to arrive and nearly forgot the dinner...
Stirring the pan with a big wooden fork, and relieved it hadn't burned after all, Maurice replied in a falsely plaintive voice.
- He's not a lame duck! Really, have you all taken the day off to pick on me?
No one took his complaint seriously. As soon as everyone was seated and absorbed in a good plateful of rice, Alec asked:
- So, who's the new... oh, all right, I won't call him lame duck... - because Maurice was rolling his eyes – Who's the newcomer?
- I haven't the foggiest! Maddox is sending him, but the line was terrible, so I got less than half of the information. Hopefully I'll get the letter about it before the fellow arrives.
- Maddox? You gave him your number? I had the idea you hadn't really got on very well with him...
- I know. I'm sure he thinks I'm as interesting as a cold hot-water bottle in winter, it was in his eyes every time we met! He liked you though...
Alec laughed. Everyone laughed, for Maurice and Alec's good humoured bickering was part of the family atmosphere.
- You know me, I'm an easy going bloke! Not stuck-up and boring like some people whose names I won't disclose... And what does he want of you?
- From what I gathered, there's this boy... I don't know who he is, maybe one of his students, I really don't know... who needs a ship to work on...
- That excludes all of his students, right? Posh university men don't need ships to work on...
- The line was very bad! I only got that the boy has gone through some bad trouble, is in desperate need of a ship and needs fattening up a bit. So, I don't know... I guess it depends how deep the trouble is. All the rest is a complete mystery.
- We'll all have to wait and see, then! - noted Julie helping herself to a second plateful of rice.
Alec was glad something was happening to give Maurice a new interest and keep his mind out of the news from Germany. He had spent the summer feverishly reading the french and english newspapers and getting more and more worried as the news – and he had ways of knowing much more than the papers published, through his shady contacts – became increasingly disturbing.
They all went out for a walk along the coast after dinner. It was rather warm, and there were quite a lot of people, mostly young people and children taking after dinner walks along the same streets. Middle aged women were sitting on the wood benches overlooking the sea, in pairs or trios, gossiping and keeping an eye on playing children, elder men sat together fanning themselves with black fans and talking about how the world had been so much better when they were young. Soon Giovanna spotted Angelo and Madina, and Madina's sister, Laura, who always accompanied the pair, coming out of the movie theatre. She went with him to take the girls home, then Julie, Mario and Santo insisted they wanted to tag along, and Maurice and Alec were left to continue the stroll alone.
As twilight dissolved into early night and a cool breeze blew a little stronger, people began to return home, so the streets became more and more deserted. At about ten, they were slowly walking back home, but stopped for a bit just to look at the sea. That was one of the good things in La Valletta. You could always go look at the sea. They sat on one of the wooden benches in the nearly empty Upper Barrakka Gardens, facing the harbour.
- This is so beautiful! – whispered Alec – It’s quite possible to forget there is a world outside full of terrible people…
- I know. I come here when I need to think, it’s so relaxing. And the sea is so inspiring!
They sat still, discreetly holding hands, and quiet for a while. Then, Maurice spoke slowly and carefully.
- Still, there is a world outside, full of terrible people. Alec, this is bad.
- The boy arriving? Or the news from Germany?
Maurice kept his eyes on the sea. It was rather dark by then, but he could still hear its soft lapping on the low stone walls just below.
- The boy is actually a welcome distraction. The news are very, very bad. I really don't know where this will lead us.
- People. The world... Europe... I mean, a sovereign country has the right to govern itself the way it sees fit, but the things one hears from Germany, the things you saw, the things I've heard lately... I know the new Government's Party had the majority of votes and all that, but still I don't know, I really don't know...
Already in her nightgown, Julie looked out of her bedroom window to see if Maurice and Alec were in sight. She had been with Giovanna and the boys to see Angelo's fiancée and her sister home. Then they had returned slowly, choosing the calm back streets. On arrival, Giovanna had sent the boys to bed. In vain they all protested, saying they were no longer children, but not very heartily. They knew their mother still saw them as children... Besides, she did have a point.
- You all have to get up early in the morning, you know! I don't want to spend half an hour tomorrow trying to get you all out of bed early enough to have breakfast and leave in time.
She knew what she was saying. Angelo worked as a junior accountant at the Harbour Administration Office, and started work at 9. Mario had finished school in June and was now training in the Post Office, learning to operate the telegraph machine, and he started at 9 too. Maurice had put in a good word for them at the right time. He knew every important person in La Valletta and could pull all kinds of strings, even now when good jobs were so hard to find. Santo was still in school: he had started classes that same week, for the boy's school always started some ten or twelve days earlier and although he had only a couple of streets to walk, he too started classes at 9. He was the only one to reinforce the protest:
- Julie is the youngest and she's staying up! It's not fair!
- She doesn't have to get up early yet, young man!
- Anyway – Julie hastened to confess – I'll just help Giovanna water the pots and then I'll go up. I'm sleepy...
She had intended to wait for Alec and Maurice, but it was after eleven and she really was getting drowsy. Her summer holidays were near the end, she would start school the following monday. Actually, she ought to be on her way to England, to boarding school, but she had appealed for an extra year at home. She didn't want to go away. She knew she'd eventually have to go, but the later she managed to do it the better. Maurice wasn't completely convinced though and she might still have to pack and go.
Hearing footsteps and muffled voices sounding in the silent street, she looked out yet again. Yes, she could make out their unmistakable silhouettes just coming around the corner. Alec, shorter, and Maurice, taller, walking side by side, very straight up the narrow and rather steep street. She remembered being very small and having to run to catch up with them, when they took her out.
Leaning out of the window, she heard Alec's voice «... I'm not completely at ease with this boarding school thing...». Her heart jumped. Maybe she would be able to stay after all, at least for another year.
Julie closed the wooden doors that let the air in and left the glass doors open. It was still warm enough to do it. Sitting on her bed, she looked around. She loved her room. Juliet, her old doll, still sat on a small chair near the window. Her violin case and the music stand were neatly kept on the lower shelf of the big bookcase. The upper shelves were packed with all her beloved books and one was dedicated to her extensive notebook collection.
On top of her small chest of drawers she had a silver framed photograph of her mother, who had died when Julie was only two days old. Maurice and Alec had given her the photograph on her tenth birthday. She remembered it had been a very emotional moment, not because she missed her mother – after all she didn't remember anything and she had had such a happy childhood – but because both men had looked and sounded very moved.
«I'm going to miss home so much!», she thought «If I stay, I must keep every moment of this year to be able to remember it when I'm at that school. I wish I didn't have to go... Well, at least, if I am staying one last year I'll have Martha and Joan with me when I go. Beats having to go alone!»
Martha and Joan were her closest friends at school. Their father was a Navy Officer and had been stationed at Malta some three years before. The girls were not twins, just sisters, but having been born in the same year, one in January and the other in December, they both attended the same class. Julie had been a bit of a loner at school before their arrival. She found most girls in her class stuffy and silly, and they, in turn, thought her a queer fish, mainly because of what they heard at home: a girl brought up with no mother, by her most uncommon adoptive father (Who's ever heard of a man being a nurse?) and her even more unorthodox uncle, a man who seemed to have a finger in every pie in the island and whose name was enough to frighten some people, even though he was a calm, agreeable, friendly man who never raised his voice.
Going away to boarding school might actually be fun if she had her friends with her so she had pleaded for the extra year. She had always known she had good chances of getting what she asked for. Neither her Da nor Maurice were really any good in saying no to their little girl. So she had pestered Maurice, the easiest to convince, all summer long, using all the best arguments she could muster.
- Please, please, Uncle! I can go next year. Please! I promise to do all the extra works, and to take Miss Poole's Advanced Latin class, and to bring the best possible grades home every time.
She fully intended to keep her promise, and she was aware that good school results would work wonders with Maurice. She loved learning and it wasn't such a hard promise to make. She had been rewarded with a loving smile and Maurice's undivided attention.
- So you'd prefer to go next year? You'll miss a full year, you know? You'll get behind …
- But I can take the classes here, so no, I won't get behind. There is a group of five or six girls taking first year classes, because of the crisis, I heard Miss Parks say. School fees are high and some families are delaying sending the girls to boarding school. I'd even promise to run for one of the scholarships, but that would be unfair to Martha and Joan, wouldn't it?
Maurice had looked at her with surprise. She really seemed to have given the matter a great deal of thought.
- Would it? Why?
- Because their parents cannot afford the double fees even if they delay it for a whole year, and if one of them doesn't get a scholarship none of them will go. And we don't really need it, do we?
Though they lived frugally, mostly because it was the way they all liked to live, they were very well off. He had been forced to agree in the end. So he had wired Chapman to suspend Julie's school enrolment for the coming school year. He was talking it over with Alec as they walked home.
- She's terrible! You should have seen her face! She tortured me all summer long, the little monkey!
Alec snorted with laughter.
- You've only got yourself to blame, my dear! It's all your work, you know?
Maurice was going to answer back, but Alec didn't let him:
- Seriously now, we knew it would happen. We brought her up to be clever and curious, and we did indulge her a bit too much, maybe...It's only natural she outsmarts us! Still, she is right, we don't need it. And I'm glad she's staying one year longer. I must confess I hadn't remembered that it would be so soon! You know I'm not completely at ease with this boarding school thing. It didn't do you all that good, as far as I remember.
- Girls' schools are different. Besides, it's been almost thirty years since I left school, things are bound to have changed. And she's had a different upbringing, hasn't she? She's such a free spirit at twelve! It'll do her good, you'll see. And she needs good tutoring, better than the school here can give her. She's already beginning to see through some of her teachers.
- Anyway, it's good to have her for another year yet. And this way, she'll have her friends with her. Nice kids, aren't they? Maybe they'll act as an antidote for all the posh girls she'll meet there. I wouldn't like to have our Julie turned into some insufferable Miss Hall! One insufferable Hall is all I can take!