When he came up to me he took my hand, shook it hard, a true sign of equality, woman or not I was one of his soldiers of steel. He looked at me for a while and kind of arched his eye-brows behind those thick bottle-neck glasses. It was a few seconds before he spoke to me. A few seconds filled with a noisy silence.
“Shouldn’t you be in school, a girl like you?”
I blushed, smiled awkwardly not knowing what to say, but it was as if he knew what I meant to say. “I know, I know you’re not a school-girl. But you shouldn’t be here!” He raised his voice between anger and compassion and lay a strong hand on my shoulder. “You should be enjoying yourself, not wasting time with this dirty stuff.” This last he said in a whisper. A tired whisper. You could just tell he was losing his appetite, feeling deflated.
“But I want to help, Perit.”
“I know I know I can see that.” He smiled honestly tapping my shoulder. “But what can we do?” He pointed to himself, his smile suddenly disappearing. “How can you ever tell people to stop spending the money they’ve waited so long to have?” Then he shrugged, shook my hand again and walked away. He put on another burgeoning grin as he shook hands with the next canvasser but I could tell, from that near distance, it was all put-on.
Why had he told me that and not the others? He felt he could confide in me, in me, imagine, our leader! And believe me, my child, I am still trying to find a way to answer his question.
When I find an answer, I’ll tell your daddy. But until then, it’s London calling.
She got up and went to the bathroom. It was a short walk across the room, behind the shuttered doors and into the small ensuite. But the walk felt long and heavy, it made her feel miserable and with every step she took she felt she was stepping deeper and deeper into a bottomless melancholy. When she lay back down on the bed holding herself, she felt as though she was grieving.
She didn’t know what grief was, not really, in her lifetime she had only ever lost her great-grandmother. But death certainly lingered, hovered around her like a fly she couldn’t swat… it was after a couple more kicks that she realised what she was grieving for. All this, this room, this bedroom, this house, her life here, her family; if they moved to London all of that would be gone, as good as dead. Her eyes began to doze off, even as clandestine tears filled them, and in a half-lucid state she could swear she could smell rot.
A bout of humid frustration swelled up in her and she hit the bed, smacked the headboard, and screamed into the lurid silence. Then she stopped. Frozen like a threatened prey animal. She cried without knowing it. Her hands crumpled the now ruffled sheets, clinging to them, strangling their finesse.
I don’t want to go to London – I hate London! Why do we have to go, so Joey can get a good job? He has a good job here! He’s being so selfish, all this because he can’t buy Mars or Lion chocolates for him and for you? Those are excuses. I know it! He’s being greedy. He wants to keep getting richer and richer just so he can tell his poor mother, see, I can do it, be proud of me, I’m more of a man than my father was! He’s changing our lives, stealing my home away from me, just because of his daddy issues!
She tried to calm herself down but that agitated her even more. My mother was wrong about him – why didn’t she warn me against him? He’s a Nationalist, like the rest of his family, shouldn’t my mother have sounded alarm bells – isn’t that what all Maltese mothers do? Ours was meant to be a Romeo and Juliet affair, but my mother ruined it by approving! And I know why she did it; she was looking out for my best interests. Thinking of her mother was calming her down. Joey is hard-working, well-educated, he was always going to do well for himself. He would take care of me, give me things my mother never had. “It’s an exciting time to be in Malta, and with Joey, you’ll get the most out of it, daughter!”
And yes, he is exciting. His work’s been good to him, good to me. We have a beautiful, restored old house, we go out to eat at the new restaurants that are popping up, we go dancing in that new place, what’s it called, Paceville! And it’s fun, it’s all fun – but why does he have to ruin it all by taking us to London?
I’ll be alone there. I’ll have no family, no friends, they say neighbours there aren’t very neighbourly, I’ll be stuck indoors because it’s not safe for a woman to go out on her own, what kind of life is that, like an animal in a zoo!
“You won’t be alone,” Joey would tell me whenever I broached the subject, as tenderly as I could. “Soho is full of Maltese. That’s why I chose there. My boss there is going to be Maltese; he owns a chain of nightclubs and some clothes shops in Oxford Street. He’s married, so you can make friends with his wife, she’ll show you around, it’ll be amazing.”
I would respond with a helpless, weak silence that spoke volumes, that spoke too loudly for him.
“Come on, qalbi, it’s London! Capital of the world – the most exciting place on earth. It’s sure as hell better than this Communist rock, isn’t it?”
“Mintoff isn’t Communist.”
“Practically. But never mind that.”
I would remain silent. I don’t know how to argue eloquently enough, to give words to my concerns, I would just end up shouting, making him angry, being bitchy, and I was scared of us fighting. It’s because of you, you know. I don’t want us to be fighting before you’re even born.
She felt another kick as if the baby was telling her; stop being so selfless. Think about yourself for a change. She realised then that she wasn’t talking to herself anymore. Her child was listening. It was thinking. Reasoning. She felt a sudden glow envelop her like a clear sunrise after a stormy night. She fell asleep for what felt like a thousand and one nights.
In her sleep she had nightmares that cackled, stung and pierced like a cavalcade of Inquisitorial torture. She imagined herself inside her own womb. Her baby was dead, black, and its face was smiling as if happy to be dead; she could smell it, the rot she had smelt earlier, she wanted to scream but she was underwater and then suddenly she felt a kick, inside her. Then she woke up and found herself in a dark apartment with grey fitted carpets, wallpapered walls and heavy curtains. She walked around the room, cleaning it, hoovering the carpet, trying to get rid of a smell that wouldn’t go away. She traced the smell, like a bloodhound on the trail of a fox, to the sofa. The smell got stronger the nearer she got to the sofa, until it grew into a wall, hard and tangible. She held her nose and without looking lifted the cushions at the bottom of the sofa. When she turned her head to look she saw her dead baby surrounded by hundreds of cigarette stubs!
She screamed a scream that had roots in the dream and blossomed in her bedroom. Despite the fan being on full she awoke sweating, hot, flustered. She went into the bathroom to throw water on her face and drink from the tap. She caught her reflection in the mirror and saw herself pale, gaunt, like an anaemic ghost. She was breathing heavily, her stomach was hurting suddenly. But it’s all in your head, calm down, it was just a dream. A dream?
Why can I still smell the rot, then? As if my child is dead inside me! God forbid, God help me! She made the sign of the cross instinctively, like a wind vane blown by the northern winds. She looked at her watch and saw she had only been asleep for half an hour. The afternoon still raged on outside. She was still trapped. Trapped – and in a week she would be trapped in her Soho apartment.