In the heat of a cruel afternoon the bedroom lies in sheltering darkness. The shutters of the white doors close out whatever sunlight succeeds in penetrating the Baroque curtains. The colours of the ceramic tiles are dimmed; the yellows, greens and blues are now but a kaleidoscope of silhouettes. The dark furniture happily sleeps in the new-found darkness. They seem to grow larger in the dense air that pervades the tiresome darkness of the siesta hour.
The bed is clean and well-made. The light white sheets rustle gently as a small green fan blows on them. Pillows of lily-white skin lie untouched, those helpers of sleep themselves seemingly asleep. On one of the pillows an elbow is placed. There is a huff and one half of the bed is covered. It’s the body of a woman. She sighs as she struggles to get onto the bed. She is careful not to mess up the homogeneity of the sheets. She’s not on the bed, she’s a part of it.
The darkness of the room envelops her and she embraces it in return. She fades away, sighs, and whines to herself about the heat, about the stairs, the whining one does almost like a prayer before falling asleep. She is tired beyond words. Life is exhausting. Not her own – but the one kicking inside of her. And now – kick! – it won’t even let her sleep. She runs her hand over her belly the way snow caresses a mountain peak. The woman is a glacier; there is so much more to that bump beneath the surface.
Please let me sleep, she said out loud as her grip unwillingly tightened on her belly. I’m tired, let me just have a few hours before daddy comes home from work. The baby kicked again, like a heartbeat with toes. What’s the matter, are you worried about something? What could you have to be worried about, my child? She sighed heavily, rolled her eyes to the ceiling and leaned her head against the padded headboard. She tried to close her eyes but they remained laconically, defiantly open.
I hate this time of day. It just drains you of energy, makes you feel ninety. The best thing to do is sleep through it. Besides, it gives you energy for the evening. There really is nothing better than a summer night in Malta.
She had never talked like this to her baby before. Up until now she had loved it via instinct, purely, sensually. But today, whether it was because of the heat or the fatigue, she felt the inexorable need to talk to her child. Some scientists say they can hear their mother’s voice! Then again some scientists say you should talk to your plants to encourage them to grow. Each to his own. She talked because she wanted to. Needed to. And the more she talked the less mundane the one-way conversation became.
I remember when I was a young girl my father used to have barbecues on the roof. The whole family would be there. And he took care of everyone. He made sausages, burgers, rabbit, chicken, potatoes – everything. He would prepare punch as well for all the grown-ups, and I could see their faces recoil and wrinkle up when they had a sip, “that’s strong stuff Alfie” – their faces looked annoyed as if they were being bitten by mosquitos, you know? She laughed in a hiccup.
On that one roof there was my whole world. All my aunts and cousins, some my age some as old as my uncles, my grandmother, her mother, some neighbours – there was a television up there too, black-and-white back then, blaring out the eight o’clock news which demanded everyone’s attention like a political magnet. I would run around the roof with my mother’s brother until he was told off for running near the ledge by his wife. Then I’d sit down on a plastic chair and eat some sausages – those were the best!
When you’re born you’ll know what I’m talking about. Your grandad isn’t as fit as he used to be, he needs help, you know, from your dad and me and his sister; but he still does a great barbecue. This time next summer, yes, we’ll do it – I promise.
The baby kicked again as if picking up on some emotion in its mother’s voice. It wasn’t excitement. The kick was cruel, as if it was calling her out on a lie. A lie. She squirmed as if she had sipped her father’s punch. She held her belly tight. What’s wrong? Her fatigue was fading away into the likewise pregnant heat. I’m sorry. I’m not lying. I promise we’ll have a barbecue here. Even if we’re not living here.
She sat up on the edge of the bed now, her arms outstretched on her side, her neck stiff, and she looked around her room. On the chest of drawers there was a veritable family album in frames. Her young father looked back at her from his wedding day. She and her mother dangled on the edge of a cliff. And there was her mother side by side with Mintoff. She thought of Mintoff then and almost hated him. It’s his fault Joey’s making them emigrate. It’s his tightness, his austerity, that’s frustrating daddy.
Daddy’s so angry, you wouldn’t believe. And he’s right: we should move to London. He’s got a good job offer there. You’ll like London, it’s so so big you can’t imagine. Even I can’t! No, no I’ve never been there. But my sister’s been. She says she didn’t like it. It’s too cold and it gets dark early and you can’t walk around anywhere and there’s nowhere to swim, you can’t stay outside because of the weather and the only places to go are pubs that are dark and stuffy…
As she spoke she didn’t realise she was crying. A tear fell hard on her belly and the baby kicked back.
She looked around her, at the darkness of the room, and imagined that cruel afternoon lasting all day and night. That’s what London was like. There’s nowhere better than here, she said smiling, drying her eyes, it’s the best country in the world. And I can say that even though I’ve never stepped foot outside Malta. She remembered Mintoff speaking at his mass meetings, shouting, with the most powerful voices on earth: Malta l-ewwel u qabel kollox.
“Malta first and foremost, that’s our message, sir, we have to make sacrifices for the good of the country.”
“For the country, or for Mintoff’s thugs?” The door slammed in her face and she was left feeling downhearted on a drab afternoon a few winters ago.
This was when she was a canvasser for Mintoff. The Saviour, as his supporters used to call him. Malta’s architect, her prime minister, leader of the Labour Party, dear Dom, Dom Mintoff, the man who freed us from the yoke of foreign rule, our own Castro – our own untouchable.
Ever since Freedom Day in 1979 popular opinion began to turn against him, she told her apolitical unborn. She wasn’t a political woman by nature but she lived in political times in a political country – so she had to be. She had enrolled to canvass for Mintoff because her mother insisted. She had canvassed for him back in the 60’s and it was a sort of family tradition – one you will never be able to continue, my child. Mintoff will be long gone from the political scene by the time you’re grown.
I remember the only time I met him and spoke to him. He was magnetic. He dropped in on a meeting for canvassers being given by the communications people of the party. Mintoff walked into the room and everyone held their breath. He is a short, compact man with a large forehead, but you know how it is, the denser something is, the more powerful! He came to shake all our hands with that cheek-to-cheek smile, making jokes with all of us, wearing his dockyard belt with the large buckle, casual in a chequered shirt and jeans – he looked just like my father.
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.
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.