Ruby always stares into space. Her feet are paper-white, thin, pimply. Her long blonde hair is always a knotted mess. Ruby is a poor girl. Neglected.
- Don't play with that one, or her brothher.
- Why not, ma?
- But why not, ma?
- Because I said so!
While we are at mass I keep staring at her, at her hair mostly, and at her thin feet almost tapering into nothing. She sneaks sweets into her mouth and plays with the cent she is meant to throw into the basket and which, I notice, she always throws into the pocket of her dress as soon as the sacristan starts the collection.
I see Ruby everywhere: in church, at the swings, in the garden down there, in the valley with her brother and the other boys, the piazza, at Mary, the grocer's, buying a bit of tomato paste and the same of cheddar…..I see her everywhere except for school. I never saw her at school, not at the door, not in any class, not in the yard.
- How come you're never at school?
Ruby looks at me crossly.
- Don't interfere, fat face!
- Doesn't your mother get angry?
- Is it your business, nosy parker?
Ruby starts to laugh and her face seems to grow prettier.
- Where do you think my dad already is, idiot? And stop snooping around, orrite, cause I'll set my brother on you!
Her eyes are sky blue.
Ruby in a red T-shirt flaunting the flaming torch on her breast. Ruby on the truck with other Socialist supporters, singing the party anthems and banging her hand against the truck's side. She stands out, you can't miss her: long beautiful blonde hair wafted by the cold wind of the end of November. I'm in my school blazer and tie, on my way home. And in my room, as I attempt to start on something, I slip into a long reverie of Ruby crying out gleefully because victory's bound to be theirs.
- Ma, did you know Ruby's with Labour?
- And how do you know? I don't want youu talking about politics, do you understand?
- No, I didn't talk about politics, ma. I saw her on the Labour truck.
- It's not our business where Ruby or whhere anybody goes. Get ready for your tea.
- Does that mean we're Nationalists, ma??
- I've already told you not to talk abouut politics. Go on, hurry up and get ready for your meal.
As I wolf down the beef off the pyrex plate, I see Ruby again, I see her hair waving in the air and I remember that her eyes are sky blue. And I see her breasts swelling under the flaming torch.
While we listen to Bob Marley on a battered radio cassette, Simon collects the cash we owe him for the grass he's bought at his school. We all smile with eyes which are already glazed, especially when Ruby goes to a corner of the garage and strips instead of paying her share. The three of us boys share her portion and her body between us.
It's become a habit. Every Friday we meet in Simon's father's garage. Sometimes there are more of us and instead of Marley, it's the Sex Pistols who blow our mind and give us lots of pleasure, together with the stolen amphetamines and Ruby prancing around naked.
I always stare at her blonde hair, tousled, messy, knotted; and when I touch her, I always start with her hair. And when she turns and looks at me with her sky-blue gaze, I feel tempted to make her mine alone, to take her far away with me alone where we can forget everyone else.
And lately I even wake at night, with a dry mouth and with the image of Ruby's body dancing for me in my room, soaked with rain drops. And I want to phone her, even though it is three in the morning, to ask her out, if only once, on a Saturday evening.
On a Saturday evening nobody ever sees Ruby. We look for her in vain at the Sixth Form disco. We ask her in vain where she goes. We only know that she often waits at the end of their street until a purple Escort Mark 1 with dark blue windows drives up, and she gets in.
And then in December, Simon's father suddenly dies. And the garage is closed and remains closed till it is sold to a panel beater from another town. Simon withdraws into his shell and we do so too. All of us
On my dazed way to my matriculation exam, I did a bit of metal revision and realized there were blanks in my knowledge. I felt an urge to go back home but I knew all hell would break loose. That's what my elder brother had done just before his Law finals, and my parents have never forgiven him. Some time ago, he came into my room while I was studying and confessed that he hadn't even forgiven himself. And my sister was good at school, but she'd fallen for a rich man who'd disrupted her studies. They never forgave my sister either, though my mother says it's all for the best because she'd found a good man to settle down with, and if she'd gone on studying they might have broken up. And so I get on the bus with my heart already pounding. Now if I don't pass, I'll put the blame on them: I'll think of something and put the blame on them. I'll tell them I didn't want to take the exams that it's better to give up now, instead of doing what my brother did. And I think of my friends. They've all already found a job. Simon already has a car; it's nothing special but he has one and girls are more attracted to him when he jingles the keys. From the bus I watch the people by the dead Triton fountain licking up the warm sun, and I feel even more pissed off.
Then, as the bus starts to move, there by the fountain, I see Ruby, in skin-tight black trousers, a torn black top pinned together by safety-pins, and a black leather jacket covered in silver studs. Her hair is a riot of colours and filthy. A bottle of wine is glued to her mouth and the guy lolling on the ground next to her, is stroking her back.
I wave at her, she stares at me, she sees me, she keeps on staring.
She doesn't recognize me. Instead, she puts the bottle to her lips again and falls back.
Beaming with happiness, in our togas and mortar-boards and with our degrees in our hands, Marthese and I pose next to the bedecked fountain for some hundred photos. And we have our photos taken together with every professor popping his chest out for the occasion. Professor Grima shakes our hands.
- Congratulations, eh, congratulations; also because I've heard that you'll soon tie the knot. Good luck!
Marthese is even happier than I.
- There's still a year to go, Profs.
> - Eh, a year goes by very quickly. Goodd luck!
Before we leave to celebrate in Paceville, I look back at the Library and, God knows why, I think of those weeks in the garage, of the Rifffs singing Dance Music for Eighties Depression, and of Ruby's pale blue eyes.I thought I'd totally forgotten my street companions. Because now I'm a scholar, and when they see me (very rarely) it confuses them. Sometimes I stop to chat with Simon, I ask him how he's getting on, and he tells me that because of the two children he has to be very frugal and that his wife must take factory work home for them to cope. We mention all our friends in a litany, as with the saints; we mention them all, one by one, except for Ruby.
Marthese finds out that throughout this last year, instead of going home after my night-shift, I have been going to Sandra's. She'd seen us leaving hospital many a time and once she followed us.
- Do what you will, Joe. From today onwwards speak to me only through my lawyer. I'd never have thought you could treat me so shabbily. What did you think? That I was blind? And what do you see in a mere crappy nurse? How can you look yourself in the face after sinking so low? Find a lawyer; I won't speak to you anymore. Thank God we have no children. But I'll tell you one thing: even if we did it would end this way. Don't for one minute think that I would have stayed on because of the children.
As soon as I sign all the papers necessary for my separation at the lawyer's, I go to Sandra's, I tell her I'm renting an apartment in Birzebbuga and ask if she wants to move in with me. Sandra is thinking of settling down with someone, getting married and trying to forget our whole affair. She tells me this with tears in her light blue eyes and before I leave she tells me she is sorry for what she has done. I look at her and stroke her blonde hair gently, and I smile at her even though I feel like hitting her. After all it was she who made the first move on the day we were partying with gamma-hydroxybutyrate. And now she tells me she's sorry, that she wants to settle down with someone decent, because her time for adventuring is over, or should be over. I am not a decent guy. I'm a bad guy.
The phone rings and I hear Simon ask for me. I hadn't recognized him. He asks me to hurry to his place because his son is burning with fever. As I leave the house with the marble staircase which he has built in Naxxar Simon reminds me of his father's garage. I think of Ruby and that the last time I saw her on my way out of hospital, was next to the Detox centre. He offers me a drink and I say I'm in a hurry.
- When you need me, Simon, don't hesitatte. There's nothing wrong with him; a slight fever. There's a virus going around which children catch. Don't worry. But if you feel the need , don't worry about phoning me, but don't phone me anymore on that number because I'm moving.
I'm a bad guy; I haven't changed since that time of Fridays in the garage.
After the night shift I come straight home; I put on the airconditioner, wash and go straight to bed, to sleep. The sea might as well not exist for me. Definitely not in Birzebbuga. I can't stand seeing those flocks of families with children screaming and licking their icecreams, I can't stand the dinosaurs in the free port. As soon as I wake I grab a book and start to read. Once a week a maid comes to clean each and every corner of the flat, and I watch her over the cover of my book. And I scrutinize her big golden bun and eyes like the clear sky. And I enjoy watching her blush and ducking her head when she catches me watching, exactly as she did when she told me she'd seen me on TV in a Friday evening programme, where I'd been invited to speak about menopause problems and the psychological crisis it brings with it. Sometimes I go out walking or I go to the gym to keep my body toned. Sometimes I go on sleeping and the maid wakes me with a persistent knock on the door, and when I see her glance at me with that shy look of hers, it makes me smile, and I want to take her in my arms and tell her lots of things which would surely embarrass her.
The Christmas tree lights flicker. In the background the children sing about the silent night which was to change the whole of history. On TV a documentary- warning about the Y2K and its threatening catastrophes.
I hear the doorbell and I answer the intercom.
- Dr. Farrugia?
- How are you, Dr. Farrugia? - Who is it? I haven't recognized you?<
- May we come up to speak to you?
- I'm sorry. I don't see patients at hoome.
- No, no, it's not about sickness we wissh to speak to you. Or rather it is about sickness, but about the sickness of the soul.
- The sickness of the soul?
- Do you mind letting us speak to you foor a while?
The woman's voice over the intercom sounds persuasive enough to make me open the door downstairs. From my door I see a man and a woman, both in coats, carrying magazines. As they approach I realize that they are none other than the couple who recently came to the ground floor apartment, those who parked their Peugeot 206 so close to the door that it was difficult to get in properly, so that I was shocked that they had no consideration for their neighbour, considering the sticker stuck on the back "Let the Light of God Guide you". It is the woman who speaks.
- How are you, Dr Farrugia?
- Not bad. However, I don't have much ttime.
- We won't take up much of your time, doon't worry. We know that everybody is busy at this time.
The man stands a step behind her and smiles as if he is incapable of looking serious.
- Well, tell me what you want.
- We have come to speak a few words to yyou about the good news and the coming of Christ. We live in difficult times because of confusion all around us, especially at this time of the year and we forget the spirit, we forget that which is true and important for our spiritual health.
- Look, let me tell you, madam, I'm a maan of the world and I don't have much time for these things. If you wish to have a drink because of the season, you're very welcome, but I'm not interested in what you want to talk about.
- I told you we want to speak to you aboout the sickness of the soul. You must never forget that your hour will come, and soon.
- Madam, be patient, knock at my neighboour's door, but leave me in peace. I've already told you I'm a man of the world.
- That is why we have come to speak to yyou, Dr Farrugia. Because you were a man of the world and still are and we have come to save you.
- Perhaps you don't know what it means tto be a man or woman of the world. You are good people, you have faith and so on. But not everybody is like you. You can't understand what it's like to be a man of the world. And now if you don't mind….
- Of course I know what it's like to be a woman of the world!
The woman removes her big sunglasses which she always wears even on cloudy days, and two light blue eyes appear looking straight at me and smiling.
Ruby's smile grows wider, but her face remains serious.
- How can it be?!
- The ways of the Lord, Dr Farrugia, aree strange, but they are many. Praise the Lord, Dr Farrugia, He has sent us purposely for us to help you find the hidden way which is ready for you.
© Immanuel Mifsud
translated from the original by Maria Grech Ganado
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