She knew Joey’s new boss. She met him once when he came here on some business meeting. He was a heavily tattooed man, his balding head prematurely shaved, he spoke with a loud voice and with even louder hand gestures; he was from Valletta, the type that gangs up on people with his neighbourly, crook-eyed crew if you say the wrong thing or if your sneeze sounded offensive. Why was Joey dealing with these sort of people? He admired him just because he was a big-shot realtor in London? To hell with that!
Imagine what his wife must be like.
Feeling tired on her feet she wanted to go back to bed but as soon as she tried to lift up her feet she found it impossible. As if some invisible, undiscovered law of inertia forbade it. There was another kick. Added to her stomach pains. She squirmed, her swollen feet teetering, but still she couldn’t move. It’s as if her body was telling her: you’re not going anywhere until you sort this out! What’s there to sort out, we’re going to London and that’s it. Joey is convinced, and he’s excited too – I can’t be the one to shatter his dreams! What right have I?
But you hate London. I hate London, I know, but! You don’t just hate London, you hate everywhere, anywhere that isn’t here, isn’t home. Malta l-ewwel u qabel kollox. But it’s like Mintoff said, Joey’s gotten used to money now, you can’t tell him not to make more or not to spend it.
To hell with money if it means taking you away from home, from family, from the sun, the beaches, the barbecues on the roof, from all of this, this place, why, it’s the best lifestyle on earth!
A potent thought raged through her head suddenly: she was happy. She had always been happy. And she had never been aware of it until now. Maybe happiness is like fate, it’s only true when looked at in hindsight. Maybe that’s the greatest tragedy of it all, that we only recognise happiness when we don’t have it! It’s like the stars we can only see when we switch off the lights on the roof. Elusive, intangible, until it’s gone – abstract, ethereal when it’s right under our noses!
Even when she was a child growing up in the backwater years of Malta’s history, when her family could just about afford to put food on the table, when the only work her father could do was to be a cook with the navy, when no one could hope of moving up in the world, and her mother had to spend long hours washing her clothes in the public well, scrubbing and gossiping with tongues that were a well-of-knives: even then, she was happy. Happy when they went to the beach – swimming is free, as her father used to say. Happy when her father cooked something new for her, something French or Spanish. Happy when they had barbecues on the roof on summer nights. Happy when she was given a new puppy and told, sternly, to take care of it as if it were a child. Isn’t that enough, she asked herself? Why can’t Joey be happy with these things?
Now we’re going to have a baby – isn’t that happiness enough? We can raise it like our parents raised us. Do all the things we did as children. Children bring families together, unite them, make them friends again – and yet he would take all of that away just so he can go to London, make more money, and make us ‘better-off’? You blinded, hapless son-of-a-bitch! I won’t do it, I won’t let you.
She moved suddenly and with the force of a moon breaking free from its gravitational shackles. But she didn’t go to the bed. Her anger had blown away the restraints of sleep. She paced up and down, beside her bed, tipping between anger and regret, trying to clutch at some resolution that kept slipping away like a cloud in a mistral wind.
But what resolution? What answer? What could she do, she’s just a woman, a wife, a soon-to-be-mother! Her opinion only carried so far. And if she were to argue Joey into staying in Malta everyone would start talking, they would say she’s manipulative, controlling, and worse: not good for him. They would start to pity Joey, say he’s emasculated, castrated, and it would begin to show in the way people looked at her, spoke to her – she would never be allowed to live it down. She would be the woman who killed her husband’s dream. That’s not a stigma she cared for – the idea frightened her. It frightened her so that she felt another kick; was that the baby or just her body recoiling in imagined pain?
She kept pacing up and down the room, sweating, crying, panting, repressing screams and jolts; until she found herself just outside her bedroom, at the top of the stairs. The air was fresher there; it was midway between the bedroom and the second bedroom where the balcony was. A draught criss-crossed around her, pleasantly, like silver water, but she didn’t feel it. No: her eyes were suddenly fixed, wide open like newborn suns, onto the stairs.
The plain, white stairs she had always wanted to tile. The paint was cracking in the humidity and it was a Sisyphean effort re-painting them every year. She wanted to tile them with some nice, black and grey spotted marble. But now, what was the point? Next week, this wouldn’t be her home anymore. No need for home improvements. No need for anything. And that thought, more than any other, filled her with a cascading torrent of hatred she could no longer hold back.
There is no way I’m going to London!
She spoke now not to her unborn child but to the house, its walls, its roof, its stairs – as if it were an organic, living being, more fleshed-out than her gestating progeny. I won’t go! Even if it kills me. Even if.
And then her eyes were suddenly glazed. They were wide open but lifeless. It was as if a wind had just passed and froze her face in that fear-drenched gesture. What is she thinking, if anything? How could a living, pregnant human being succumb to rigor mortis?
After a few deathly seconds, a smile slashed across her face. It was crooked, created no dimples, and was nowhere near any kind of happiness. A mistrustful smile. Then her eyes slowly emerged from their petrification and like jellyfish began to move again, mindlessly, until there was a degenerate happiness in their slant.
There were no apologies, no good-byes, only a calm, rock-hard assurance that she was doing the right thing. The only thing she could say to her unborn as she ran her hands maternally around her belly was: I can always have another one.
And then, like a sky-diver, or the way she used to dive off cliffs at the beach with her father, she threw herself down the un-tiled stairs, peeling off strips of paint as she tumbled agonisingly towards the bottom, leaving blood-stains in the intestines of the house. With every step she fell down the kicking decreased, step by step, until finally, it stopped, replaced by an anguished emptiness that stabbed her with spurts of pain.
As she lay at the foot of the stairs, contorted, bleeding heavily from the inside and out, she clutched at her empty belly and smelt yet again that ethereal scent of rot. She summoned the strength to shout out for help – this wasn’t about death, at least, not hers – and when she was sure someone had heard her she broke into a sobbing fit embellished by the subtlest of smiles.
Before anyone came to help her, alone, so soon an ex-mother, she thought calmly to herself: I’ll say it was an accident for now. But I swear, if Joey ever brings up the idea of moving to London again, I’ll tell him the truth. He can leave me if he wants to, but I’m not leaving Malta!
Justin Fenech is a 27 year-old writer from the Mediterranean Island of Malta. He is a graphomaniac with an Epicurean bent. He has a long-held interest in travel writing and in his fiction he is fascinated by how people in such dire circumstances (be it poverty, war, oppression) still find a way to be happy! He has had to be used to the simple pleasures as growing up in Malta there wasn’t much else; in such climes you learn to make the most of food, drink, sea, books and friends. He was a finalist in the IEMed Sea of Words short-story contest which dealt with cultural integration in the Mediterranean and has had poetry published in the Art Against Discrimination anthology.