December 1939, somewhere in the English countryside
Though he was still excited about the farm, the animals, living in the country again, relearning the rhythm of nature that had once been second nature to him, Alec’s heart still had a small but persistent spot of darkness. Giovanna and her boys had stayed behind. Alec’s home would always be where Maurice was, but Giovanna held a big chunk of his heart as well and it hurt.
Maurice hadn’t been happy to leave her, but he knew it couldn’t be forced. From the day he had decided they would go back to England; she had made clear she would stay.
- This is my home, Maurice. I know my father was English but remember, my mother was Italian, and my husband was Maltese. I was born here, I grew up here, I married a local man, and my children and grand children were born here. This is where I belong.
And there was no amount of reasoning that could move her. Maurice understood, of course he did, but he had the burning desire to put all his loved ones in a safe place, preferably under his personal protection, because that was his way, he was a natural protector. To make matters worse, Angela was about to get married and would be staying on as well. Alec had to keep telling him the obvious:
- Maurice, do rest. You cannot take care, personally, of everyone you know.
Around the end of the winter before, they had had a good talk, more of a heated argument really, about the move, because Alec had his doubts about the whole thing.
- Are you sure we must go back? I thought we had kind of settled that long ago…
- There’s going to be war, Alec. It won’t be like the last war, you know. There are aeroplanes now, and we are too close to Germany to be safe. This is an island!
- May I point out that we will be moving to another island?
- A slightly bigger island, Alec! Slightly bigger.
In the end, Alec had been seduced with the idea of moving into a small farm. The one thing he had been missing during all their years in Malta was country life. A part of him had always longed to go back to the country. He had never completely given up on his youth dream of a cottage, a couple of chickens and maybe a pig.
- And what about your business, the HMS Scoundrels and all? – he had asked.
Maurice had a mischievous twinkle in his eyes when he answered back.
- Believe or not, I can retire from that. Rest your soul in that aspect, we are quite rich fellows, my dear. I’ll have other things to do from now on. I can read, I can learn new things… If we are going to live in the country, I’ll have at the very least to be able to tend for the kitchen garden, right? And the chickens, and the pig... Remember I started my working years as a stockbroker, and even if all that is now in the distant past, it’ll take all your persuasive powers to make a passable country fellow out of me, my dear.
Now they were all settled and if it wasn’t for the war Alec would say their life was as near to perfection as it could be. Sill, putting up with the War Ag. demands was the added bit of challenge he liked. They had hired a couple of men to help around, as soon as they had arrived, and by the end of summer they had made and baled the hay, made and cured some cheese, stocked the larder with enough provisions for the coming winter, and Maurice, helped by Julie, had prepared all the preserves and jams they might be needing for quite some time. As the preparations for Christmas began, Alec looked at the full shelves and thought how all that food would be welcome come January and the rationing.
They were sitting by the fire in their big kitchen that doubled as a living room, all the daily chores done: cows milked (both Julie and Maurice had learned to milk in a jiffy), chickens, both cows and pig fed, wood box full, and a bacon and leek pie in the oven for dinner. They could all take a good rest and sit, making their plans for Christmas. For the first time, they would not be having a Christmas gathering, it would be just the three of them. No big dinner, no noisy meal, just a quiet affair, Maurice, Alec, and Julie.
- Let’s keep it simple – Julie suggested – A nice bit of pork to roast, a chicken pie that will keep for a couple of days to eat cold, vegetables on the side, and gingerbread cake. We have those wonderful apples as well and Christmas is the perfect occasion to open one of those wine bottles we brought from Malta.
Alec heard this with a smile.
- What are you smiling at, Da?
- You, really. It’s fun, and endearing too, to hear you take care of things like this, all grown up. What do you say, Maurice? We’re getting old, hey?
Maurice put down the newspaper he had been reading with a growing frown and enveloped both Alec and Julie in a loving gaze. He would love having Kitty and Violet around in the near future, with the war on and all the work that would be needed, but for now he was completely happy with the little household.
- You speak for yourself, sir, I don’t feel old!
- Well, we’ve a grown-up daughter… That’s something to make one old.
- No way! We’re young parents, Alec. What’s your opinion on this, Julie?
Julie held out both her hands for her fathers.
- Yes, young parents. Please, never change.
- I don’t intend to change, love.
- Good! Let’s enjoy our Christmas together, while remembering those who are far away.
Alec thought it was the right time to put in some good common sense:
- Remember there’s a war on, girl. Who knows how long it’s going to last! In our vast experience, Maurice, we’ve got years of it ahead, right?
Maurice’s smile nearly died out. But Julie wasn’t hearing of sad things while planning for Christmas. She jumped from her chair and turned on the spot with a laughter.
- We can take it. We are strong! We’ll be together! Let’s concentrate on Christmas. A merry Christmas to us!