Love and Destiny
They met again after three years. Beside them, in a half empty coffee house, were two cocktails, still scrupulously untouched, lying there opposite them in a solitude and lonely appearance. Both stared at each other, speaking no words and uttering not a faint sound between them.
Three years ……Three long years had passed during which they had not seen each other and only occasionally heard news of each other. Now, there they sat in a war-torn London coffee house, not knowing where to begin. They had met again by chance under the statue of Eros in Piccadilly. A Londoner with an aristocratic family background, was on a three day rest leave from his Royal Air Force base in Scotland. An American girl from Missouri stranded in London during the war, intended to meet a colleague with whom she was to finalize schedules for the evacuation of children from London.
Jane Hammond was now nearing her late twenties while John Arnold was in his early thirties. He noticed that she had retained the same glaring characteristics and the same supernatural way of looking deep into other peoples’ eyes. He had never forgotten the long black hair gathered neatly together behind her neck. She had always worn her hair that way, reminding him of the lightness of cool summer air. It was still there, this long black hair falling back and tied with a broad, red coloured ribbon. There it was, as it had always been, as he had always dreamt it would be. Also he could not forget the blue glaring eyes. They always had a particular attraction to him, a particular beauty unmatched in his imagination. He could never dream the like of them anywhere else.
They had both gained a bit of weight. Both added some wrinkled lines around their eyes and mouth…………lines of experience, of that inner wisdom, so much unknown in youth.
They were now beside the low table in the far corner of the coffee house. On their left, pairs of lovers were drinking amicably, talking and laughing their young hearts out. Some cuddled and hugged in a loving embrace of affection, while above them, through the open-roofed ceiling, the moon was bestowing the right setting for the execution of love. A white glaring moon was clearly visible in a light blue heaven.
John was a spitfire pilot carrying out nightly air raids over Germany. He knew that it was a highly dangerous job but he and his colleagues were determined to safeguard their country and their countrymen. The missions over Bremen, Cologne and Hannover were what were called, a ‘death run’. Many of his colleagues did not return from their sorties. Some were brought down on foreign soil by heavy enemy gunfire. Some went down in the channel lacking fuel to reach the cliffs of Dover. Others hobbled back, damaged and injured, to fight another day.
Jane was still looking forward to return to America. Meanwhile she stayed with friends in London, helping in the war effort. Presently she was assisting in the organization of evacuating children from bomb-targeted London to safer towns and villages in the north. “John” she stammered. Her fingers fumbled with the light yellow handbag in her hands, her eyes were lowered and excitement was telling on her. She could bear it no longer. “It’s nice to see you again Jane”, he said. They evaded each other’s eyes, shamed from neglect and lack of foresight in their personal affairs. She, in particular, felt a strong emotion within her, an inner feeling of happiness and joy that follows ultimate excitement.
Three years ago, before the war, John Arnold was very much in love with her, and she was none the less with him. They courted assiduously but although they were not yet engaged they had made plans for tying the knot. Jane was a lonely American girl, while he was engaged as a free-lance sports writer. Their love was great within itself. How often had they pledged to love each other until their last dying breath? How often had they vowed that there would never be any other person in their lives? Very often he used to hold her strongly in his arms and whisper in her ears that he loved her as much as there are waves in the ocean sea, as much as there are sandstones on the beaches. They often kissed passionately under the very moon they were looking at today, the very same moon of three years ago.
On Sunday mornings, rain or shine, they used to walk aimlessly arm in arm along the uncultivated paths of the neighbouring villages. He would compare her beauty with the lovely colourful flowers along the way. He would recite her poems. She would laugh at his exaggerated mutterings. They had pledged to love each other eternally. But then all young lovers do so. Then he joined the RAF; was posted in Scotland; started piloting the new Spitfire aircraft. And they lost touch. War, unfortunately, does not leave much time for love and romance.
During the Battle of Britain he formed part of the aerial defense, meeting the German bombers and fighters as they came in large formations across the channel. Now, as the RAF began to retaliate, he was with Bomber Command accompanying the Allied bombers in bombing missions over Germany.
As they sat drinking cups of bad-tasting coffee, they recounted on their lives these last three years and on their aspirations for the future when the war is over. They found their old love back and promised solemnly to keep in touch with each other. They walked the streets of London, hand in hand; sought refuge in damp shelters during air raids; kissed under dim street lamps and embraced in dark corners. Then he went back to Scotland and she continued her work in the city.
Their love blossomed over time – by letters, post cards, phone calls and occasional meetings. During one of their meetings they looked for a place of their own. They found one of their dreams – a cottage in the Kentish village of Leith Hill which they rented and prepared for their marriage.
But Jane had first to return to America, see her parents, obtain important papers and documents, get some personal things and return back to London to prepare for her important date and sharing life with John. They knew that they would be separated at first because of their war commitments and with both being far away from each other. But as soon as the war ends they would move to the cottage and be together forever.
As Jane stood on the dock in Liverpool harbour waiting to board the ‘SS Berkshire’, she assured John that he would always be in her thoughts. He kissed her passionately and watched her mount the gangplank. When she reached the deck, Jane turned, waved her hand and blew kisses towards John. The porter picked her bags and accompanied her to her cabin. The ship left harbour early in the morning and John took a train back to his base in Scotland.
Immediately he got back to base, John was entrusted to lead a special mission over Germany. His mind was still on Jane and his marriage on her return. After returning from their successful sortie, the crew relaxed over cups of tea and biscuits in their quarters listening to the radio and reading books and newspapers.
With his hands behind his head, his long legs sprawled on the table, his mind wandering, he looked at his co-pilot reading yesterday’s ‘News Chronicle’. Then he saw the headline – “The SS Berkshire torpedoed in the Atlantic. No survivors!”
Shocked and speechless, he gathered his flying gear and went to his private place. He sat down, head in his hands and cried. He laid there for some time, his mind bringing memories of his Jane, one episode after another. Then he went to sleep.
The following morning John was assigned to carry out a raid to the Ruhr valley, twenty bombers and ten fighter escorts. The target was the steel works. They dropped their heavy load but they met with heavy ground fire from all sides. The Germans were defending their ground desperately.
As the badly-damaged raiders returned to their base, there were several casualties. The crews looked out for their colleagues – those who returned and those who did not. John, who again led the raid courageously and without fear, was listed as ‘Missing, presumed dead’. The men went silently to their quarters. They felt tired, sad and angry. They had lost so many of their colleagues today among which was their own brave leader.
A War Story
It was a nice spring day and people had escaped from their confined houses to enjoy the day in the warm sun. The grandfather was taking his six year old grandson to the park where he would play football with his friends, while he would relax sitting on a bench reading a book.
More than two hours later the little boy returned to his grandfather sweating and tired from kicking the ball about. After a few minutes puffing and devouring a bar of chocolate, he relaxed on the bench besides his grandfather and asked him “Grandpa, could you tell me a story before we go back home?”
The old man smiled. He liked recounting stories while his grandson enjoyed listening to a good adventure. “Yes, I will tell you a little story about the war which I know that you will like because it has the thrills of an adventure.”
“There was a man by the name of Ġużeppi. He worked at His Majesty’s Dockyard in Bormla during the war. The dockyard, then, was a beehive of activity. It was where crippled battleships, cruisers, submarines and aircraft carriers entered for repairs to enable them to continue the Allied fight on the high seas.
Bormla, being so near to the Naval Dockyard and the harbour, had been a prime target for enemy bombers. As a result, most of its houses and buildings were destroyed or heavily damaged while several people were killed and others gravely injured.
Many of the residents had left the town to reside with relatives or friends in towns or villages in the north of the island, areas which were not subject to the incessant bombings like the south.
Ġużeppi’s family had, in fact, settled in Rabat and he had to travel the long distance from Rabat to Bormla every morning and returning back in the evening. Sometimes, because of the intensive bombing or because of blocked roads, the buses did not work and he had to make the journey on foot.
One particular day in July of 1942, Ġużeppi went to work as usual at the dockyard. But that day was not to be a usual day. Bormla had just received a horrific hammering from German bombers which caused devastation to this old town.
Those who came from various other towns and villages to work here every day described Bormla as a ‘ghost town’ where dogs, cats and large rats roamed the streets and alleys for food. How it had changed! Before the war, Bormla was one of the busiest places in the whole of Malta where people came from all over the island to do their shopping. It was now an eerie place to visit.
When Ġużeppi finished work he went to check on the old family house where he lived before the evacuation to Rabat. He was astonished to see that it was destroyed and brought to rubble. He remembered that he had done so much work in this house, including all the furniture, plumbing and electricity. He cried when he witnessed this absolute destruction.
Among the stones, rubble and pieces of wood from the broken furniture, he retrieved a wooden crucifix which had hung on the bedroom wall. Then, despairingly, he went his way to return to his family in Rabat.
The old rambling bus was filled with workers who lived in the northern part of the island. They were returning home after a day’s work in very dangerous circumstances. Sometimes during air raids they had to keep repairing warships because of the urgency of the situation. Sometimes, during heavy bombing, they took refuge in dug-out shelters.
It was a long and uphill journey practically crossing the whole island. The workers on board the bus were grim-faced, their eyes filled with pity and, at the same time, angry at what they had seen all around them. Nobody spoke.
As the bus rambled on, passing Marsa, Ħamrun and Attard, it started up the hill for its final lap to Rabat. The passengers were watching the tree-lined country road and the green fields behind them. They were anxious to reach home.
Without them knowing, a lone German fighter plane was hovering around like a hungry vulture seeking his prey. The pilot saw the old bus filled with people rambling its way up the hill. He dived down, engines screaming creating a frightening noise. The bus passengers looked up, saw the plane coming straight at them, and were terrified to death. The German pilot started machine gunning the bus riddling it with bullets.
The driver of the bus, afraid for his life, stopped the bus and everybody got out in a hurry making out for the nearby fields, hiding behind low rubble walls and small farmhouses.
Ġużeppi, with the crucifix close to his chest, jumped a rubble wall, ran to the field and hurled himself face down on the grass with the crucifix under his body.
The German pilot, looking on from above, seeing these helpless people scattering in all directions, started machine gunning them as they ran for cover. It was an eerie scene. There was utter silence except for the noise of the aeroplane engine and the rat-tat-tat of the machine gun.
Ġużeppi lay still, holding his breath, while spread-eagled in the field. He was praying to God, to the Holy Mary and to all the saints to let him live and go back to his family. He heard repeatedly the deadly rat-tat-tat of the machine gun and the occasional scream of other passengers.
The bus was now ablaze like a great ball of fire in the deserted country road. The plane was still flying low, circling the horrible scene, the pilot looking for survivors to shoot them from above. Then he flew up, turned tail and went away.
When the still frightened workers did not hear the sound of the plane and of the machine gun, they came out of their hiding places, grouped together and walked up the hill to Rabat.
As the weary men walked away from the scene, they heard the anti-aircraft guns open up from Ta’ Qali airfield. A barrage of guns was shooting at a target in the sky. Then they saw the plane in flames, going down and down until it crashed in the field a distance away. They stopped, cheered and clapped.
They walked on and on until they arrived in town. Ġużeppi headed straight to his family, still visibly shaken, shocked and angry.
As he entered the house he found his wife Dela and his two sons Johnnie and Joey waiting anxiously huddled together. They sprung up when they saw him, ran up to him and he gathered them lovingly in his outstretched arms.
Then he sat down and told them that their house in Bormla had been bombed flat. He showed them the wooden crucifix which he had retrieved from the destroyed house. Then, slowly, he recounted the terrible ordeal of the airplane attack on the bus and the passengers as they climbed the hill towards Rabat. Despite this terrible experience, they were all extremely happy that he was still alive and back with them.”
As the old man finished his story, the child looked up and saw tears falling down his cheeks. “Why are you crying Grandpa?’ he asked him tenderly. “I’m remembering child, things I had almost forgotten which happened some fifty years ago. I want to tell you that this is a true story. The little boy Joey was then, like you, only six years old. He is, you know, actually myself! Ġużeppi is your great grandfather! He was a small man but in my child’s eyes of fifty years ago, he was as big as a mountain!”
The sun was now setting and it would soon get dark. The old man and the small boy got up from the bench; the child’s small hands held tightly in his grandfather’s wrinkled ones and, slowly and silently, started walking towards home.
The Man with a new Face
‘Queens College Hospital’ in Nottingham’s east side was a military hospital specializing in the treatment of facial injuries, reconstruction of facial features and plastic surgery. It treated soldiers, sailors and airmen of the British and Allied forces during the last war. It was situated in a secluded part of the town, beyond the park, with security all around to discourage visitors, intruders and curious people. It was rumoured among the town’s people that strange things happened there.
The hospital was actually a large and old stately house converted by the Military authorities for service personnel who needed special facial treatment following head injuries sustained during the war. It was run by Dr Chris Cox and his team of doctors, surgeons, nurses and other medical staff, all of whom were qualified and experienced in this special field. Although most of them were civilians they were under the orders of the military and not the civilian government.
“When are they going to remove the bandages from my face?” asked the patient as he walked in the extensive garden grounds of the hospital. Nurse Smith, who was accompanying him, looked at him tenderly and replied. “Next week. I saw it marked in the surgeon’s schedule. The time has come.”
“I want to see my face. It has been more than a year since I was admitted here”, he remarked expectantly. “You will be as good as new, mark my words, but you will have to adjust to your new face.” replied the nurse. “I will. It was not much of an angel’s face to begin with!” he replied mockingly. He was anxious but he was also afraid. He had not stepped out of the hospital for a whole year. When he entered the hospital he told the doctors that he could not recall his name and regiment, so he was referred to as ‘Lucky Leslie’ because he was considered to have been lucky to survive following his extensive injuries. He did not remember when he was brought in straight by ambulance from Folkstone, probably because he was then unconscious, . But he remembered the bombs, the mines, the deaths, the fear, the ships and the utter confusion on the beaches of Dunkirk. British and Allied troops were stranded on the beaches of this French coast on that fateful day in June of 1940. German planes bombarded them and Panzer tanks surrounded them. The remnants of the Allied army were helpless. The German troops in front of them, the enemy plans above them and the sea behind them.
Besides the Navy, more than 700 little ships, mostly fishing boats and pleasure crafts of all shapes and sizes, were put to sea from the shores of England. Some were men who hadn’t navigated a vessel for years but had volunteered to race across the channel and pick up the stranded soldiers who were under a hammering from the German guns and planes. Under horrific conditions they did their best. Thousands of men, not only British, but also French and Belgian soldiers were plucked from those beaches. Trip after trip was made to bring these men back to England and fight another day. The evacuation of all these men was a miracle in military history: 68,000 soldiers were killed or captured while 330,000 were successfully evacuated back to England, snatched from the jaws of certain death.
But behind them, along the sand dunes of this French seaside town, a mass of bodies covered the beaches and many more floated gently in the sea. It was a defeat but, as Winston Churchill said later, also a victory at the same time. He remembered lying half unconscious on the beach, his face covered in blood, unable to move and waiting for help. He recalls how two men bandaged his head, put him on a stretcher and raced with him to board a small boat already full up with other wounded men.
Then he lost total consciousness as the skipper arrived in Folkstone and all the men were disembarked. He was taken to a make-shift hospital set up purposely to see immediately to the needs of the wounded. On seeing the smashed face, he was transferred to ‘Queens College Hospital’ without delay where, diagnosed as in urgent need of major treatment, he was immediately operated upon. Dr Cox informed the staff that the patient would have to stay in the hospital for a long time, during which he would do his best to reconstruct his face.
For a whole year Dr Cox and his team worked on him with utmost care. The day had now arrived when they would see the result of their labours. What would be his reaction when the bandages were removed? Would he like his new face? Would he accept his new identity?
On the day when his bandages were to be removed, Nurse Smith sat beside him for a long time giving him encouragement and boosting his spirit. When, finally, Dr Cox removed the bandages, Lucky Leslie did not want to open his eyes. When he finally did, he asked the nurse for a mirror, looked at his face and cried. He was satisfied with his new face, but he did not recognize himself! He was a new man.
He was congratulated by Dr Cox, Nurse Smith and the staff, however he replied that it is they who deserved the congratulations for the miracle that they had performed. He would forever be indebted to them for giving him a new life.
On a fine day in September of 1941, Lucky Leslie walked out of ‘Queens College Hospital’ and stepped out into the outside world. Fifteen months closed in a hospital made him wary of the future. He took a train to Coventry where he intended to settle down as it was the place he was brought up in, which he knew well, where people he knew lived and worked. His parents, unfortunately, had both died tragically during one of the air raids on the city.
Coventry had changed. The city had suffered terribly from bombing during the early stages of the war. He settled in a lodging house and then strolled along the streets of the old town. Familiar landmarks, familiar faces. He saw Peter, his life-long friend, said “Good day” to him, he replied “The same to you mate” and went his way. He did not recognize him! He was a stranger in his own town and among his own people.
He took up light work at a department store because his leg prevented him from doing any strenuous work. He was hard working and diligent and an organizer. In a short time he gained the confidence of the directors and was promoted to manager of the store, with responsibility for purchase and display.
One day he sat down on a bench in the park reading the newspaper. When, looking sideways, he was surprised to see his former girlfriend at the nearby bench. She was the same as he had remembered her – good-looking, vibrant and talkative. They got talking about this, that and the other.
“Are you from Coventry?” she asked. “No, I came down from Newcastle some months ago, I now work at Curry’s” he replied. She told him, about herself, her work as a cashier, her parents. They got on well together and promised to meet again.
When they met again, Gill Askew showed him a photo of her former boyfriend Clarence Woods whom, she said, she had loved dearly and was devastated when he was reported ‘missing presumed dead’ in Dunkirk a year and a half ago. Lucky Leslie, as he was now known by everybody, admired her loyalty to him when he was still known as Clarence Woods. She still loved him! Well, she still loved his previous face!
Their courtship continued while Coventry was under a bomb siege from German aircraft, when the town suffered heavily and many people died. They were married in March of 1942. He told her that he did not have any objection to the picture of Clarence being hung in the house. He also insisted on accompanying her occasionally to St. Thomas Cemetery where a plaque in memory of her former boyfriend was erected by his parents. He said that he felt him to be like his unfortunate brother. So Gill hung his picture along with their wedding photo. Lucky Leslie and Gill Askew lived a happy life together filled with love for each other and were blessed with two children, a boy and a girl.
On 14 December 1980, Lucky Leslie died in his sleep at 60 years of age. He was buried in the town’s St. Thomas Cemetery. His plaque reads – “LUCKY LESLIE, AGED 60 YEARS, DIED ON 14. 12. 1980. A LOVING AND DEDICATED HUSBAND AND FATHER. R. I. P.” Right next to him stood the memorial plaque of Clarence Woods with the following inscription – CLARENCE WOODS, AGED 20 YEARS, DIED IN JUNE 1940 AT DUNKIRK FIGHTING GALLANTLY FOR KING AND COUNTRY. R. I. P.”
And so Lucky Leslie or Clarence Woods took his secret with him to the grave. Two memorials, two graves, but one man. When Gill visits the cemetery and prays for both the men she loved in her lifetime, little does she know that they were one and the same person.
It is the year 2011. The hospital is an ugly and sombre place to be in at any time. It is so for visitors who come here for a few minutes then return back to their own comfortable homes. It is worse for patients who stay here for days or weeks or months and, often times, do not return back home.
The bright light from the hot mid-day sun filters inside through the large windows of the room where four patients lay in their beds. Some are surrounded by relatives giving them comfort. Others are alone, loneliness showing on their faces.
“Are you a relative of our patient Delia?” the nurse asked me. “Yes. I’m her son”, I reply. “I am afraid she is not well today”, she remarked. “Her health has deteriorated these last few hours. How old is she?” “Ninety six”, I reply in a subdued tone. “I think that you should inform the rest of the family to come and be with her at this moment. She is, you know, fading away slowly”, the nurse continued.
Our story now goes back eighty years. Joseph was a master craftsman, a man of many talents who could do anything with his hands. He hailed from the old town of Birgu which was the seat and the capital of the Knights of St. John after they arrived in Malta in 1530.
Until the years before the beginning of the Second World War, the people of Birgu were seafaring, earning their livelihood from small boats plying the harbour. But Joseph was different; he was good at school, had passed the Dockyard apprentices examination and was therefore employed at the Dockyard, then considered as the best employer on the island.
He had met Josephine some time after he had started working. She was from the nearby town of Bormla, the eldest of three sisters. Their father and their brother had emigrated to the United States some years back, leaving their mother to raise them up by herself, but with much love and fair discipline, as was common in most Maltese families in those days.
Besides the three sisters and their mother, the household consisted also of two aunts. As the master of the house was in another continent, thousands of miles away, Joseph was a frequent visitor at their house in the narrow many-stepped Strada Buongiorno, calling daily after a day’s work at the Dockyard. In these circumstances, being the only man in the house, he was always looked for to give advice, to carry out various works and to do other duties normally carried out by the man of the house.
As their courtship prospered, their love for each other grew so much that they were engaged to be married. Her mother and her sisters were delighted for Josephine. Joseph gave her a gold ring which she proudly and happily put on her finger signifying her devotion and love to him, as well as a promise to marry him and live happily together for evermore.
In Joseph’s eyes Josephine was beautiful. He believed that a beautiful person is not one who has a beautiful face or a beautiful figure, but one who has a beautiful character and a beautiful smile. He believed that the face and the figure are just the outward signs of your personality, while the character and smile are the inner signs of your own self. The face and the figure may deceive but the character and the smile show who the person really is.
Only a few weeks before they were to be married, tragedy struck. Josephine became ill and she got worse as the days passed. She knew that her days were numbered and that she would not, as she had ardently hoped, be a lifelong companion to Joseph.
He was always by her side, comforting her, giving her courage to beat her illness. He was a pillar of strength to her and to all the members of the family during this ordeal.
One day she felt that her end was near. She called her younger sister Delia and spoke to her about Joseph. She told her that he is a good and honest man and, if she could love him as she did, they would make a remarkable couple. Her love for this wonderful man and her dream of a life together with him would be carried on by her younger sister. Delia cried seeing her sister ebbing away slowly and painfully under her very eyes.
Josephine’s task was not yet finished. She called Joseph by her side and told him not to be afraid as she would be looking after him after her death. She told him about Delia, what a remarkable couple they would make. Before her last breath, as he held her in his arms and cried, she gave him back the gold ring he had given her some time before and told him, “It would look nice on Delia’s finger!” Those were her last words as she died, still in Joseph’s strong arms.
Days and weeks passed since this tragedy when all the members of the family, as well as Joseph, grew closer together during their bereavement. Although Joseph and Delia had been pushed towards each other by Josephine before she died, they found that they could relate naturally toward each other. They found solace in each other and love quickly blossomed between these two young persons.
They were eventually engaged and married in 1930. They set up home in Bormla and during their happy marriage had two sons and a daughter. The Second World War forced the family to evacuate to Rabat where they remained for three years. Their house in Bormla was destroyed by enemy bombs but the family held together for a new dawn when life could return back to normal.
After the end of the war they returned to Bormla, built their house again and continued their life together. Joseph, a happy and likable person, was loved by everybody. But the good Lord had other plans for him. He died in 1961 at the age of 56 after thirty years of a happy marriage to Delia. It was a tragic loss as he was the most important cog of the whole family.
It is 2011 again. My mother is in her death bed. The nurse calls me again. “She asked me to give this to her family”, she said as she placed a small folded tissue paper in my outstretched hands. Later, with other members of the family, I watched the last few moments of her 96 year life ebbing slowly and silently away.
Two days after her death, when she went to meet my father who had been waiting fifty years for her to rejoin him, I remembered the nurse’s words and slowly unfolded the tissue paper. There, in yellowish gold and shining bright, was the ring that my father had first given to Josephine and then to her sister, my mother, eighty years ago.
As I sat, sad and lonely in my chair, my mind, as it has a habit of doing, went a-roaming. Like a flash back from the past, I saw the whole story of the ring, as recounted to me by my mother herself many years ago, unfolding before my eyes. I marvelled at the role this small metallic object had played in the destiny of three good and gentle people.
The Twenty-Eighth of August
It is the evening of the twenty-eighth of August. As usual, it is a very hot evening. I bring down the calendar from the kitchen wall, mark the day off and replace it on the hook. Through the window I can see the pigeons homing in to the window sill of the vacant building opposite our house and the birds seeking their resting place among the branches of the tree below.
The radio is playing some old time favourites and Perry Como’s song ‘Magic Moments’ was filling the room with music and nostalgia.
“Magic moments …..
When two hearts start caring.
Magic moments …..
Memories we’ve been sharing.
Time cannot erase
These magic moments
Filled with love.”
Today’s date takes me back all those years ago when my life changed direction and brought me here to where I am sitting today …………………
………………… I was standing there on the altar steps, my brother by my side. The old white-bearded priest was arranging the ceremonials on the high altar. I had just entered the small charming church and walked on the plush red carpet which was laid down for the occasion.
The chandeliers were all lit up despite the bright morning sunlight coming in from the wide open front door. The pews, on both sides, were full of people dressed for this special day, relatives and friends of both of us. Various other people came out of curiosity. I was anxious, looked at my watch, heard the car arrive, people were coming in.
When she appeared at the front door of this small lovely church on the arm of her father, all eyes turned towards her. She looked stunning, slim and elegant, with a beautiful white train following her, a tiara on her head and a delicate veil covering her face – a typical princess, I thought.
The organ started playing bridal music. Loud, stirring chords filled the church. She was walking slowly on the red carpet, coming towards me to the altar. All eyes from the pews were moving with her every step. It was her day. She was the star today.
I looked at her. She was lovely with a radiant face and a happy look. She had just turned 19 only four days ago. I was 24. I took her hand to help her to the altar. Both of us knelt down on the kneelers, in front of the altar. We went through the mass – the choir, the sermon, the Holy Communion, the blessings of the rings. Then, arm in arm, we left the church together while the click click sound of the photographer’s camera never ceased.
We left the church together. A shining black Mercedes was waiting for us to take us to our reception at the Band Club. We made a short detour to allow the congregation to transfer itself from the church to the Band Club.
Relatives and friends were waiting for us. As we entered the hall, the band started playing ‘Here comes the Bride’. There were so many congratulations, hugs, shaking of hands, kisses, laughter. And so much noise! It was deafening.
There were drinks, food, cakes and ice-cream for everybody. Everyone was dancing to the music. At the end of all this merriment, we were lifted up on the shoulders of our friends, brought closer together and kissed in mid air. And the band played on.
We cut the three-tiered wedding cake while everyone had champagne glasses ready for the wedding toast. We then left the hall in late afternoon. The sun was still blazing down mercilessly. Tired and anxious, we finally got away to be with each other…………………………..
That was more than fifty years ago or half a century. A very long time ago. But how time flies! Our son is married and our grandson is following his own career. It seems only yesterday that I stood anxiously on that church altar waiting for my girl to arrive.
The radio was now playing Ray Charles’s popular old song ‘I Can’t Stop Loving you’. It was one of my favourites of the fifties. I knew the words by heart.
“I can’t stop loving you,
I’ve made up my mind
To live in memory
Of the lonesome time.
I can’t stop loving you,
It’s useless to say.
So I’ll just live my life
In dreams of yesteryear.
Those happy hours
That we once knew
Though long ago
Still make me blue.”
“A penny for your thoughts.” My wife’s voice cut across my thoughts. “Oh, I’m sorry”, I apologized. “I was just thinking” I replied. “You were miles away” she said. I slid my arm around her shoulders and drew her close to me. “You were thinking of the past again, I can always tell.” she continued. It was so very true. It was not the miles, it was the years. Fifty years ago. That was something indeed. Every day, on each anniversary, I am always thankful for the way my life changed all those years ago on the twenty-eighth of August.
The Champion of Golden Bay
I was on flight KM 103 from London on its way to Malta. It was a comfortable three hour flight. White cotton-like clouds floated beneath us. The pilot had already announced that we were descending to our destination where the weather was sunny. I looked from the small window and saw the Maltese landscape coming nearer and nearer.
Then I opened my handbag and took out the black and white photograph, now yellow and wrinkled with the passing of the years, and held it tight in my hands. The photo showed a young man with a small girl perched on his shoulders. His full black hair was smoothed down and glossy with ‘Brylcream’. A wide grin was on his face. I remember very well when that photo was taken. It was on my eighth birthday at Golden Bay where the family used to go sunning and swimming in the hot summer months. How we laughed and enjoyed ourselves on that golden beach.
I turned the photo over. The words ‘Champion of Golden Bay’ were written in black ink. They were Mum’s words. She liked to put captions on the back of family photos. I smiled as I remembered how proud my father was of this photo and of Mum’s caption on its back. I loved this photo too and made it a point to take it with me when I left home. I remember that Mum had shouted to Dad to put me down but he laughed and held me even higher. That must have been sixteen years ago now. How time flies!
Mum had phoned me yesterday from home, informing me that Dad has had a relapse and was taken to hospital where he was diagnosed to be in a serious condition. He was losing his battle with big C. She had urged me to come back home without delay. I took the first flight home. He had been ill for some months now, but I never thought that it was that serious. However Dad was a fighter; he would not give up easily. “Please God let him live!” I murmured as I looked at our old, fading photo once again.
I was eager to be at the hospital and see Dad. I remembered how he always encouraged me to improve my position in life; he gave me confidence to overcome everyday problems; his words of wisdom still rang loudly in my ears – “Don’t judge a book by its cover”; “You cannot stop the future and you cannot rewind the past”; “the Lord works in mysterious ways”; “A stitch in time saves nine”; “take care of your pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves”; and so many others, all with a meaning and a lesson.
The plane had now landed in Malta. The sun, as predicted by the pilot on flight, was blazing. I alighted from the plane, passed through customs, found myself at the ‘Arrivals’ lounge, dragged my small luggage outside the terminal and hailed a taxi.
“Mater Dei hospital”, I directed the driver. He looked at me a second time. It’s not often that a flight passenger takes a taxi direct to the hospital. “I hope everything’s all right Miss” he said in an attempt to console me. “Yes, yes “, I replied looking blankly away from him. I was dropped at the entrance, hurried inside and asked for directions at the reception. “Follow the ‘Blue’ line, second floor.” They told me. I followed, as instructed, took the lift and again asked for the ward. “Second room on your right,” they told me. My feet felt as heavy as lead but I hurried on.
I saw him as I entered the ward. How frail he has become, I thought. Mum was by his side, holding his hands. I tiptoed in quietly. “Hi Dad, Hi Mum” I asked and went straight to embrace them both. I opened both my arms and held them close to me.
“Oh Jennifer, Jennifer!” exclaimed my Mum. “I was telling Dad that you were on your way”. She looked relieved to see me. I kissed Dad on both cheeks, held on to his hands and asked “How are you Dad?”
“I’m fine Princess”, he said. “They are fussing too much over me really, I’ll be out of this hospital in no time, you mark my words”. But he did not look fine to me. Propped up in his hospital bed, he looked a shadow of his former self. His pyjamas looked two sizes too big for him.
We sat there, the three of us, occasionally interrupted by the nurse who came in to give him an injection, adjust his bed equipment and to mark his note board, which hung by his bed. “It’s so nice to see you Princess”, he said to me as he looked at me with his loving eyes. “Listen Dad” I replied. “I came across an old holiday photo a few days ago. The one taken at Golden Bay where you’re balancing me on your shoulders, remember?” “Of course I remember” he said. “You were only eight years old and as light as a feather”.
“Dad, you’ll win this battle, I know. You and Mum and I will walk out of this hospital together arm in arm like we used to do years ago”, I said, convinced that he’d win and pull through in the end. His fingers tighten around mine. He smiles at me the way he always smiled at me and, suddenly, I have to struggle to keep back the tears. “I’m going to beat this thing, you know”, Dad whispers as I bend over to kiss his cheek. I doubted whether he really meant it or whether he wanted us to believe that there was some hope after all.
He looked so tired, so worn-out and so in pain, that I felt so sorry for him. I wanted, at that moment, to encourage him as he used to encourage me so often when I was younger. “I know you will”, I say with a certainty I felt in my heart. “Remember Dad, you are the Champion of Golden Bay. You will always fight like a champion!!”
A Brief Encounter at the Fair
Richard Evans and Joe Barton, both in their fifties, bachelors and long-time friends, were walking in the park. They crossed the narrow make-shift wooden bridge and headed towards the river bank where they would sit on the grass and talk on whatever takes their fancy at the moment. It was a lovely Sunday in the Spring of 1999.
“There’s the annual traditional fair next week Richard. It’s been sometime since I’ve last been there. Shall we go and see what’s happening, what do you say?” asked Joe as he sat down on the moist grass. “The Fair eh! I don’t know Joe. I’ll tell you what happened to me at the Fair years ago. I haven’t told this experience to anyone else before.That is if you are in the listening mood, of course,” replied Richard.
“Yes. Yes. I’m listening. This must be interesting if you kept it to yourself all these years,” said Joe. Richard sat down beside his friend and began recounting his story:-
“It was a day like today. Sunday, the end of Spring heralded the Summer season of exactly thirty years ago. The Fair was on. I was one of the thousands who went to visit it, more out of curiosity than for anything else. I sort of surprised myself that day. As you very well know, I am a very shy and introvert person who does not make friends easily. I always keep a step or two back from entering into a conversation, or from saying ‘hello’ to a person smiling at me, or from encouraging any familiarity whatsoever.
I was roaming from one place to another, watching people, young and old, enjoying themselves with the various kinds of entertainment being offered from the many stalls, tents and booths. It was a lovely day, the sun was shining after a bad winter and the people were making a day of it.
I was watching people on the merry-go-round as I clutched a small bottle of water in my hands. Then I saw her. She was wearing a short multi-coloured summer dress tied with narrow black belt at the waist. She was so pretty! She was holding on to her dress as she spun round and round on the merry-go-round.
She saw me looking at her and smiled at me. I felt shy to smile back. Then, on the second round, she appeared again in front of me, still clutching her skirt with one hand. But she waved at me with her other hand. I just lifted my hand slowly and sort of waved back. I made just a small movement with my hand really.
When the merry-go-round stopped, she got down, looked out for me, joined her friends and went to find other entertainment. I was mesmerised by her. I moved on, looking here and there, seeing what’s available, what’s interesting, more to pass the time than to take part in any ride or join in the fun. Then I sat on a bench to rest, taking a sandwich out of my case. I saw her again half an hour later. She passed in front of me with her two companions, recognized me, waved directly at me and smiled. What was I to do? I did smile back and waved again but did not leave the bench to follow her. Maybe I should have done that.!
Then she dropped a leaflet she was carrying, could have been the Fair’s programme or something. Maybe she had dropped it on purpose hoping to encourage me to come near her and talk to her. I was pondering whether I should run after her, pick up the leaflet and give it to her. That should have been my immediate impulse of course, but I was caught in two minds. I was rooted on the spot. It was my shyness of course. Suddenly a young man stepped forward, picked up the leaflet and gave it to her with a smile and a bow. They started talking and, to my dismay, he kept walking with her. I was the nearest person when she dropped the leaflet but was too slow to act. I didn’t see her again. The sun was setting down and I made it to the exit and took a bus home. But her face, her smile and her wave kept coming back to me every day. The ‘meeting’ with this beautiful girl, brief and from a distance as it happened, was always on my mind.
For thirty years after that, every year without fail, I went to the annual Funfair in the hope of meeting her once more. I was determined to talk to her and, at least, learn her name. But I never saw her again! Last year the Fair was back again as usual at the beginning of the Summer season. I went again, more out of habit than anything else. I had been walking around among the stalls and rides for some time, felt tired and sat down on a seat overlooking the merry-go-round.
A middle-aged lady came and sat next to me. She looked tired too and I was sure that there were tears in her eyes. Then she looked at me and said. “I used to come here every year when I was a young lass.” “So did I” I replied. “I met my late husband here,” she went on. Then she smiled at me. There was no mistaking it. It was her!
I was dumbfounded and just looked at her in disbelief. Then she said. “I nearly met a nice young man at this Fair one year, many years ago.” I just listened, still could not believe my eyes. “He was eyeing me and I was sure that he was interested. So I dropped my programme hoping that he would pick it up and we would start talking”. I did not speak one word, just listened to her recounting the incident which for so many years was still fresh in my memory.
“He was such a nice young man”, she continued. “But he never picked it up. I think that he was going to, however the man who became my husband beat him to it!” she said. As Richard stopped his long recount, Joe brought his hand to his mouth in surprise. “What a sad and fascinating story,” he said. “You know something? I don’t like Fairs. Never have done!” Richard responded calmly.
“You don’t like Fairs? And you kept going there every year for thirty long years!” said Joe. “No. no. This was just a story. I made it up! Just my imagination! It never happened. I’ve never been to the Fair!” replied Richard.
A Journey into the Past
It was the evening of the 10th of June of the year 2013. Just a week before my 77th birthday. I felt tired, maybe because of the heat of the day or because of the long walk I had just made along the new Dock No 1 waterfront. Or maybe it was my old age. Whatever it was, I felt weary and needed a rest. Immediately I entered home, I collapsed on the armchair. My heavy eyes soon closed and I was in the marvelous world of dreams …………….
…………….. I opened the gate of the garden, stepped slowly inside and found myself in a large open space which appeared to be a beehive of activity. On close scrutiny, I recognized it to be the large square outside old city gate in Valletta. The old three-arched gate stood behind me.
I moved forward. There were too many people moving about, some entering the City, others going out of it. The bus terminus was busy with the old different-coloured buses transferring people to and from the outlaying towns and villages. I noted that the people close to me wore old fashioned clothes and, despite it being summer, none of them wore T-shirts or the kind of clothes we usually wear at this time of the year. Most men wore light white straw hats or caps and the majority of women wore black drab clothes. What is this?
I also saw several horse-drawn ‘karrozzini’, all doing a roaring trade, filled up with people going towards Floriana and beyond. It was evident that these were not tourists but Maltese going about their daily business. On my right I saw a man in the corner selling newspapers. I went up to him and bought a copy of the ‘Times of Malta’. I scanned the front page briefly. There was news that the luxury ship ‘Queen Mary’ had made its maiden voyage and had arrived in New York on 1 June and that Italy had annexed Etiophia after its forces had occupied its capital Addis Ababa. I also noticed that the style of its presentation was different to the one I am used to. And, more strangely, the news stories were definitely not about the subjects I was reading about yesterday or the days before. Then, at the top right hand side of the paper, I saw the date – 10th June 1936! What is this?
My mind was in a whirl. As I looked around me I was thinking of what this might be. The only explanation I could find was that when I had opened the magic garden gate I must have been transported 77 years back in time. Amazing! I had read about ‘Star Gate’, the ‘Time Machine’, ‘black holes’ in space, time travelers and time warps. I was always intrigued by the scientist’s theory that if one were to travel at a speed exceeding that of light, then one would travel back or forward in time. Was this what had happened to me? Was the garden gate my ‘Star Gate?
At least I was at a place I knew well but at a time when my birth was one week away! I racked my brain to decide what to do in such strange circumstances. I recalled my mother saying that she and my father lived in Strada Buongiorno in Bormla during their early years of marriage. They would be the only people I know, even though they would not know me. Well, not yet! Not for another week at least! I decided to go and find them.
I took a green bus to Bormla. The city was familiar to me although very different from the Bormla I left only a few hours ago. Of course, this area around the dockyard was still in its pre-war state, of which I had only a bare recollection. I sought Strada Buongiorno, took the steps upward to No 15 and saw my parent’s house. I remember this house after it was reconstructed following its destruction by German bombs during the Second World War. What shall I do? What shall I say? These were the only people who could help me, maybe let me stay with them until I sort things out. But who shall I say I am? If I tell the truth they would certainly not believe me. And I would not blame them.
I used to have a very good rapport with my father. I would bare my soul to him, tell him the truth. I knew that he was well-read so maybe he could have come across some science–fiction article on time travelling. The problem was that I was 77 years old and he was just 29! My story would be hard to believe. I thought, however, that I could convince him of who I really was.
The door was open but the ‘ante-porta’ was closed. With trepidation I knocked and waited. Nobody answered. I knocked again a little harder. A young woman came and opened the ‘ante-porta’. She must be my mother! She looked at me, an old man, dressed somewhat different from normal. “What do you want?” she asked me in a gentle sort of way. Of course she did not recognize me. How could she? I did not exist yet! But I was sure that she was my mother. I recognized her from the old photos I have of her in my album. “Is Guzeppi in please? I am his friend and would like to speak to him.” I enquired.
She went inside and called my father who came immediately. “Hello”, he said, “who are you?” “Can we talk privately for moment please?” I pleaded hoping that he would not refuse me. I remember that my father was always a kind and gentle man, ready to help anybody who needed his assistance. Even many years after his death in 1961, people who realized that I was his son, would recall incidents when he had helped them in one way or another. They had spoken so highly of him that I felt so proud to be his son.
“Yes, yes, come in.” he said. We sat down on the armchairs in the sitting room. I remember that he himself had made all the furniture in the house. Although in actual fact I was his son, to anybody who could see us then, it looked more that I was his father or grandfather! “I have to recount a story which, I know, is so strange that it is hard for you to believe. But I pray that you believe me because I am saying the truth.” I said anxiously.
He looked at me, smiled as he often used to do, patted me on my knee and said. “I’m listening, I’m curious after what you have just said”, he replied. There, in the house I recall so well, I opened my heart to my father, telling him that, despite my aged appearance, I was actually his own son; that through some unexplained method of time-travelling I have been transported from the year 2013 to 1936; that in actual fact at that very moment in time I was not yet born!
My mother came into the room to see if we needed anything. A two-year old child, a boy, was with her. He must be my elder brother John I realized. I also noticed that she was pregnant. That must be me inside her, just another week before I am born and enter this world. Dad told her that it’s all right, we do not need anything and she left us again to be alone. “It’s so far- fetched, so unbelievable” he said. “But strange things happen and I believe your story”, he continued.
I was relieved at last. My father had accepted me as his son. He believed me. But, he said, that it would be best if we do not tell this strange story to my mother. For one thing, it would be difficult for her to believe the story. And for another thing, it would be a shock for her which would not be advisable in her present state of very-advanced pregnancy.
Dad accepted to accommodate me with the family for the time being. I was delighted and relieved. After a week, when Mum was ready to give birth, the midwife was called. I sat with my father and brother downstairs in the outer room while the midwife was assisting my mother to give birth. My father looked at me and smiled. It is a strange feeling. My father, still in his prime of life and I am an old man.
Then we heard a baby crying and the midwife telling father that he has another baby boy. My father and I looked at each other. I got up, shook hands with him and said, “I have just been born, there cannot be two of me at the same time, now I have to leave and find the gate which will take me back to 2013.” Dad and I had tears in our eyes as we hugged each other. “Take care son” he said “take care!” Then he darted upstairs to my mother’s room where my birth had just taken place.
………………………….. Then I woke up from my sleep, rubbed my eyes with my back hand and looked around me. I was back to where I had started before the adventure into the past where I had met my father, mother and brother. And where I just nearly met myself!
The Lottery Ticket
Everybody in the village knew Pawlu. Not because he held any esteemed position in the community, nor because he ever did anything exceptional to be remembered for, nor because he liked to mingle freely among the different folk of the village. However Pawlu was the church warden. It was always he who at every mass, be it on weekdays or on Sundays, with collection box in hand, went around the congregation collecting money for the church. And it was often he who led the faithful to recite the rosary before the first evening mass.
Pawlu was 51 years old, still as light and agile as a cat, a good soul and a loving family man. But he had one obsession which only his wife knew about. He was a gambler. Not a heavy one mind you, but a gambler all the same. A man of very modest means, he always thought that one day he would be rich.
All throughout his adult life, every week without fail, he staked a few euros either on a ‘lotto’ or a ‘super five’ or a ‘lottery’ ticket. With his optimistic nature he always expected that he would win, always thought that, this time, his numbers would come out of the large rotating urn holding all the issued tickets. But they never did and he never won.
His wife Marie had a different character altogether. She was mild-mannered, of a calm nature and satisfied with her position in life. Unlike her husband, she did not crave for more money and the modest wage Pawlu brought home each week was enough to make her life comfortable and enjoyable.
Marie repeatedly admonished Pawlu for throwing away money over his weekly stakes. “A gambler”, she used to tell him, “is always a loser, never a winner!” If he had saved the money he had paid for the stake tickets he had bought these last thirty years, she always told him, they would have had a good sum of money in the bank, not nothing.
But Pawlu was certain that one day his numbers, which he never changed, would make him rich. “You’ll see Marie, you’ll see. When I win the one million euros, I’ll buy you a nice house in the new part of the village. And we’ll go for a long holiday. You’ll be so happy that I persisted in playing these blessed numbers”, he told her.
He continued with his mission in life, week in week out, always the same numbers, all signifying some dates or ages close to his heart. He did not trust his short-sighted wife to get him the tickets, being afraid that she would mess up his numbers. “Some day I‘ll become rich” he would often say to himself. And while in church, he would pray to his favourite saints to intercede on his behalf so that his wish would be granted. For thirty years he kept faith. “One day,” he always thought, “one day my luck will turn.”
He would buy his weekly tickets, kiss them tenderly, put them in the jar on the top of the kitchen side-board and wait for the draw on the Wednesday. It was a ritual. Sometimes, out of the same five numbers on which he put his stakes, he would get one number right, or two, or on rare occasions, three numbers. But no wins.
One evening Marie was following the draw on television. The numbers were being extracted from the rotating urn. One, two, three, four, five numbers! Pawlu’s numbers! She could not believe it. She opened the jar, took out the tickets and WOW, they had won it, over one million euros. She just could not believe it!
Pawlu was still at the church, assisting the parish priest at evening mass, after which he made preparations for the morrow’s early mass. Then he bid good bye to the parish priest and left for home. As soon as he entered the house Marie, tears in her eyes, shouted at him –“Pawlu, you’ve won, your five numbers have been drawn, and we’re rich Pawlu, rich!!”
Pawlu stood motionless, at first not realizing what Marie was telling him. Then, still not sure, he told her. “Is it true Marie, this is no joke is it? How do you know?” “I am sure Pawlu. I just heard and saw the numbers on television. I checked with your ticket. Here see for yourself. They’re your five numbers!” she answered breathlessly.
The impact of this news then struck Pawlu. His thirty-year long cherished dream of becoming rich had finally come true. He was now the happiest man on earth. As this realization sunk in, his face became as white as a sheet; sweat seeped down from his face and a stabbing pain run across his chest.
As he clutched his chest with both his hands, he fell on the floor right in front of Marie. She uttered a scream and ran out for help. When the doctor came and examined him, he pronounced him dead. After Marie recounted the events as they had happened, the doctor certified that death was caused by a heart attack, probably following strong, emotional joy on hearing the news of his substantial win.
But the story did not end there. It had another twist. After the funeral, Marie went to the Lotto Receiver with Pawlu’s ticket. He checked the numbers, looked at Marie and told her – “You have a winning ticket with four numbers, not five. The prize is 200 euros!” In her excitement Marie had made a mistake of the last number.
Pawlu, poor soul, had died in vain after all!
Jeff was my boyfriend for the last three years. Well, something more than my boyfriend really. I had never expected myself to fall in love with a bank clerk. Not that there is anything wrong with bank clerks. It was that I’d never imagined a bank clerk would be exciting enough for me.
Just two weeks ago he had asked me to marry him. He caught me by surprise. We were having coffee at Cafe Cordina in Republic Street one fine Sunday morning. “Why do you want to marry me?” I asked him, still shocked with surprise. “Because I want to share my life with you, that’s why”, he replied as if it was something to be expected.
That is not enough reason for marriage, I thought. It was a reply which did not excite me. Did Jeff want to get married because, after three years together, it was the next thing to do? Why did he not tell me, “Because I love you!” Where is the romance? Where is love? Maybe I was reading too many love stories lately.
“I have to think about it”, I said. “It’s a proposal of marriage” replied Jeff, looking flustered and upset. But I could not reply immediately. I knew that Jeff loved me very much, that he would do anything for me, that we would have a good stable life together. But ……………….. Even as I sipped my coffee, my mind went back to Riccardo whom I had met during my holiday in Rome a year ago. He was exciting, romantic and full of compliments. He was so different from Jeff. It could be, I thought, because he was Italian. He used to sing and play the guitar in a popular restaurant in Trastevere, where all the young people seemed to gather in the evenings.
“Give me time Jeff and I’ll give you an answer,” I said while he took hold of my hand caressing my fingers. “I’ll be on holiday next week, booked with my friend Beth. We had always wanted to return to Rome,” I continued. “But I thought that we would go for a holiday together, you and I”, he replied looking confused and hurt. “OK. I’ll wait for you to come back and then we’ll talk again,” he said as he planted a kiss on my lips.
Two days later Beth and I were in Rome. We took the airport bus to Stazione Termini and then walked the short distance to our hotel in Via Gioberti. The receptionist welcomed us with “Buongiorno signorine, welcome to Rome”. Beth nudged me with her elbow. “He is handsome, isn’t he?” she said in a low voice, so that the comment remained between us. For Beth every Italian is handsome and romantic, even if he is just ordinary.
After registration, we went to our room, settled our clothes and things in the wardrobe, rested a little bit, had a shower, dressed and then went out to see the city, which we had only last seen the previous year. As a multitude of church bells tolled, we said to each other –“Let’s see what has changed.”
Rome itself does not change. Each year trees blossom among the old palaces, the same clouds drift above the many church domes across the horizon, roses still grow in garden terraces below baroque palaces and the river ‘Tevere’ continues to flow slowly beneath the bridges as it did last year and hundreds of years ago.
Only the people change. Ten million people every year come from all over the world to see its archeological and art treasures as well as to savor its charm and unique traditions. But the various hotels where they stay, the monuments, fountains, churches, museums and the other places which attract them to this beautiful city, remain unchanged.
During the morning we visited Piazza di Spagna, Fontana di Trevi, St. Peter’s Church, the Colosseum, Bocca della Verita, Foro Romano, Via del Corso and the other well-known landmarks. It was hectic but satisfying. No, there were no changes to note. Life seems to have gone on uninterrupted since we were last here. But what about me? Have I changed?
In the evening we went to Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere in search of Riccardo. “Would he still be there?” I said to Beth. She looked at me suspiciously “Of course he will be there; singing in restaurants is his career; I have no doubt that he will be there”. I had my doubts, of course, or maybe I was so eager to see him that I was afraid that he would not be there.
“You’re in love” Beth remarked seeing the far-away look in my eyes. “I don’t know”, I said, “I’m just wondering!” “It was only a holiday romance”. Beth replied, “Don’t count too much on Riccardo”.
I had my fingers crossed as we approached the restaurant – ‘Taverna da Mario’ – in the heart of the piazza. As the musical notes of ‘O sole Mio’ wafted in the evening air, I knew, I definitely knew that Riccardo was there singing and playing his old guitar.
Beth and I entered the restaurant and saw him. My heart jumped. His hair was a little longer, his skin a little browner, otherwise he was just as I remembered him. We sat at a table away from where he was entertaining. He had girls all around him, mostly young tourists, probably American and British. During the break from playing and singing to patrons, Riccardo chatted with the girls, put his sun-bronzed arms around their thin waists, kissed them jokingly and laughed.
It was then that he saw us. He left everybody and came hurriedly towards us exclaiming – “Ah, the lovely girl from Malta. Where have you been all this time?” He was, as all Italians do, smiling broadly and gesticulating with his hands. And then he took me in his arms and kissed me passionately.
“Come, come with me tonight” he said, “I’ll show you how beautiful Rome is at night!” When he finished singing, I left Beth chatting to some other Italian, jumped on Riccardo’s ‘motorino’ and we went away. He looked as if he wanted to break the speed record as he wove his way along the traffic on the roads. As we swooped down hills and around bends on the mountain side, I clung firmly on to his waist.
It was exciting and romantic at the same time. From the top of Monte Mario we could see Rome beneath us, its main sites all lit up like various Christmas trees. It was an enchanting sight indeed. I was thoroughly enjoying myself and wanted the night to stand still. Before we separated, I gave Riccardo my hotel’s address and telephone number and he promised to call and collect me from the hotel so that we would enjoy my last few days in Rome together. Life with Riccardo would always be so exciting, so full of surprises, constantly on the move, late nights out. All that would suit my out-going character.
Beth was fast asleep when I entered our hotel room early in the morning. She was up and about when I woke up, as the clock struck mid-day. I recounted my adventure with Riccardo to her the night before and told her that he makes my heart skip a beat; that he told me several times that he loves me; that he had promised to call for me at the hotel, to continue our romantic interlude. Life with Riccardo would not only be romantic, but also a non-stop adventure. Beth had to return to Malta that very evening. However I stayed a day longer, hoping that things would happen in the meantime.
But during the whole of the next day, he did not phone or call. Maybe Beth was right after all. She had told me that this was all a holiday romance which lasts only a few days. Despite his vows of love, could it be that for him, I was just another foreign girl he liked to flirt with?
I was having breakfast on my last day in Rome when the receptionist came hurriedly up to me and said. “Signorina! Signorina! There’s a man asking for you in the lobby.” “There”, I said to myself in an anxious mood, “Riccardo has finally come for me.”
Excited, I followed the receptionist to the lobby downstairs. Then I saw him. He was standing there holding a rose in his hands. I felt all my misgivings simply melting away. One romantic gesture could make all the difference in winning a girl. When he saw me, he grinned. “Hi sweetheart. I love you!” he said. “I hope you don’t mind me joining you”.
“Hello Jeff”, I replied, seeing him there with his luggage by his feet. “I don’t mind at all. As a matter of fact, I could do with some company!” Then he took me in his arms and kissed me with a passion I could not remember. Rome does not change, but I had changed, I thought, as I looked at the man I had spent three happy years with, the man who really loved me without uttering empty words, however romantic they may be.