A grave for the Honourable Gentleman
She startled him. Not only because he could not see how she had come by her information, but also because that ever-active filter that was his mind immediately wanted to know whether he was being sent a message on this torrid morning, a morning so hot it seemed as though Hell had boiled over.
Before visiting Diriana, he had almost made up his mind to give up, at least for the day. He was hot, sweaty and dejected and, above all, weary of doors that remained closed. Closed not always because he was unwelcome to the people behind them (which was likely in one out of every two cases) but sometimes because people had moved house for the summer or gone on an outing for the day. He had run out of steam and, in so far as motivation was concerned, he had even less than usual.
Truth be told, motivation had never been his strong suit in all the time he had been at this game. All appearances to the contrary, the worm that had hatched within him from the very beginning, that worm of self-doubt, incessantly scheming and whispering, never died nor even grew less active with the passing of the years. What are you doing here? Who do you think you are? Can't you see that you're not getting anywhere? What sort of a life is this?
A worm that gnawed and confused. A worm that had lodged inside him early in life but had taken on new strength and become more persistent when he entered politics. He never allowed it to surface and those around him, unaware of its existence, thought of him as ready for anything, obstinate, deaf to all advice. Only he knew how tenacious that worm was, how heavy it made his tongue when he rose to address a public meeting, no matter how small the audience, and how it sapped his energy whenever he knocked on constituents' doors. The struggle that he had to go through was a matter only for him and the worm inside him and he would allow no one else to see it.
But he had steeled himself for the fight and, at least, it seemed that he was winning, even though, on days like this, the tussle was renewed door by door as he pursued his other endeavour, which was to keep himself in the hearts and minds of his constituents. He knew that the best way of doing this, as the number of candidates within his party burgeoned and his electoral district grew and changed, was to meet his voters every day, street by street, door by door. He was like the parish priest during the time of the blessing of the houses and, indeed, they often crossed each other's path as one entered a house and the other left it.
Or like a beggar, as the the worm, unrestrained and untiring, often reminded him coldly. Not a beggar who huddled in a corner waiting for people's hearts to be touched, but the one who, in search of a pittance, roamed the streets knocking hopefully on people's doors only to be told, whether to his face or behind his back, what a pest he was.
But he had discovered that, once he had overcome his doubts on a person's doorstep and set foot inside, the worm lapsed into silence. When he left, it started again and continued until he came to the next door. Once inside, however, he always found other things to occupy his mind than his personal conflict: tale upon tale that reflected the diversity of life. Always, in every house, cottage and cranny, he came across something that nudged his memories, made him happy or sad, taught him something new. Or, sometimes, unsettled him, as Diriana had just done.
As with most of the people he visited, all he knew about her was her name and her age, which he could tell from the last two figures of her identity card number on the electoral register. And she hardly gave him the chance to place her. She was much taller than him and well-built, although she looked well past 70, and as soon as he entered her house her arms enfolded him and she hugged him to her so that the glasses on his nose went askew.
"How are you?" she cried in his ear. "How have you been keeping? It's been so long since I last saw you. And why didn't you come round before the last election, then? Did you forget all about me?"
She held him to her as though he were a relative returning to the island at last from a far-off country and, while he patted her on the back to make her feel that he, too, was happy at their reunion, his mind raced trying to figure out who on earth she was and why he hadn't visited her before.
"How are you, then, Diriana?" he asked as soon as she let him go and he could breathe again. "Of course I hadn't forgotten you. How could I? It was just that I didn't have the time to see everybody. You know how busy I was then and I knew I could count on you. I certainly did not mean to offend you. You, of all people."
"I thought you were ignoring me," she said, and she wiped away a tear that was both happiness and a tinge of sadness. "But I didn't stop thinking of you and I still gave you my first preference," she continued with a touch of pride, "even though that clever dick next door gave me no rest, wanting me to vote for the new man."
"And who's this neighbour of yours, then, Diriana?" he broke in.
"The woman next door. You passed her house coming here. She wouldn't open the door for you last time, pretending she was out. But she was in alright, in her balcony spying on everyone from behind the shutters. She really is away today, though. She moves to the seaside in the summer, has even bought a flat there. God knows where the money came from with her husband being as lazy as a bed bug and refusing to do so much as an hour's overtime."
"Oh that one. I can't think what came over her. She used to vote for me."
"That's the one. After all you did for her, even found work for her husband. But you can't rely on anyone these days, love. Well, not quite. We have always voted for you in this house and always will. And you know that don't you, you clever monkey, that's why you ignore me."
With a laugh, she pulled his ear as though he were a child. "My Andrew used to insist so on that, poor man. Do you remember what he said to you the first time you came to see us, that little rhyme he made up?
Andrew and Diriana both declare
You're their choice, to that they swear
It vexed him that he still could not place this woman but he was careful not to let her see that.
"Now that I hear it from you again, yes, I do remember. You are priceless, you two."
"There's no one who'll ever take your place here. My Andrew loved you. And how could he fail to? He grew up with your father. In fact, he always claimed that the two of them were related, his grandmother and your father's being cousins. One of the last things he said to me, when he was lying in hospital, was not to even think of voting for anyone else, though he himself would not be around for the next election. That boy is like our Liziu, he said, and if you give your vote to any one else, I'll come back to haunt you. And so will Liziu."
"You remember our Liziu. You started school together, at the nuns', as soon as you could walk. He died soon after you were returned to Parliament the first time. He couldn't find work in Malta so he went off to Australia only to find death waiting for him on the farm there, poor boy. Here he is, look, you must remember him." Her eyes were moist as she showed him her son's picture.
He felt at a loss how to break the silence which followed. "Yes, yes, poor Liziu," he mumbled.
She covered half her face with a large white handkerchief and wiped her eyes. "Ah well, that's fate for you. I've lost all my other children to the kangaroos as well, but they're all doing well, at least. Liziu was the unlucky one. And, you know, Andrew never recovered from his death. Look how long I have been alone now, just like your mother. How is she, by the way?"
"She's well, thank you."
"Remember me to her, won't you? I haven't seen her for a long time now because I never go out any more except for the morning Mass. My legs will still hold me up but they're not much use for walking. But there's nothing to be done about that. Our time is getting nearer, that's all."
"Come, come, now, you're still in the pink, thank God."
"That's what you think. Still, if it's God's will... But at least I'm ready for it now. I've made the arrangements, at last."
"Arrangements? What arrangements, Dirian?"
"Well, I have finally bought a plot at the cemetery. Do you remember? When Andrew died, I asked you to find me one in the village cemetery but you said you couldn't help me because none were available. Recently, the parish priest told me there were some on offer in the main cemetery. He's always thinking of us old ones, poor man. Anyway, I thought I'd better take this opportunity. The parish priest even wrote out the application for me and now I have one. My children paid for it, bless them. Even though they're in Australia, they still look after their mother."
"Well, at least..."
"Oh, I can't complain about my kids. They even want me to visit them but I don't have the strength any more, not for a trip like that. Anyway, guess what I've done? I've moved Andrew to the new grave. What do you think of that?" she asked happily.
"Yes, it was the proper thing to do, he worked so hard all his life. But come to think of it, what have you yourself done about it? Have you bought a plot?"
She took him by surprise. How could she have known that he had been thinking of buying a grave? He had applied for one years before but had never followed that up because the rest of the family had not been happy with the idea and there were also those who told him to be careful.
"No, no, I haven't, Dirian. But how did you know I was thinking about it?"
It was a question addressed more to himself than to her. Was it she really talking?
He had a vision of the other council flat he had entered where one corner of the sitting room was taken up by a large statue of the Virgin Mary with masses of flowers placed before it. "The Blessed Virgin has told me all about you, you know," that other woman had said with a smile. "Don't lose heart. Everything can be put right." And she had given him the feeling that she knew of, and forgave, all his failings.
"I just know," broke in Diriana. "Take my advice and grab a plot now that they are available. What are you waiting for?"
His feeling of apprehension grew stronger and he did not know how to answer her.
"Go on, buy one. Let's face it, your mother is the same age as me, we were always breeding and bringing children up at the same time, and you're not as young as you used to be, either."
He wondered once more whether it was really her who was saying this to him.
"Do you think so, then?"
"Of course I do, and don't lose any time over it, either. If you can afford to pawn it you can afford to sell it, I always say. In any case, you should see how attractive they make them these days. You go in under the trees, then there's a bit of a climb along a pathway to your left. After that, you go through an archway, walk up a bit more and find yourself in a large garden. You've no idea how beautiful it is! And if you must know, there already is one member of parliament buried there.What on earth is his name, now, I could never get my tongue round it, but anyway, that's where he's lying."
"Yes, really. Go on, then, get one for yourself as well," she urged him cheerfully as she took his face between her hands. "We'll end up near each other, how about that?"
When he left her, he could no longer hear the worm grumbling. He was too distraught trying to understand the import of what he had just heard.
At home, he mentioned not a word of what Diriana had told him but, eventually, let slip the suggestion that perhaps they should think again about buying a grave. After all, there was no saying when either of them would be snatched away. Wasn't it proper that they should have their own plot? And where, in the past, they could never agree, this time his wife left the matter in his hands. That same evening he sent in his application.
He received an answer in a matter of days, and a viewing appointment which he could not keep because he was going to be abroad. He informed the authorities of this and was given another date. When he finally got to the Addolorata Cemetery, the clerk he talked to explained how much a plot would cost, so much going to the government and so much to the contractor who prepared the grave. He was then invited to choose his plot.
"Choose a plot, Onorevoli!"
"Oh, I thought I would have to take whichever plot you gave me."
"Normally, yes, but we still have about six plots left in this area." He was shown a plan. "I would say number 17 is best," continued the clerk, "or the one next to it which is also still available. One of those two. Or perhaps you would prefer to go and have a look first."
"Do what?" he said, disconcerted. Then it came to him that he was making a fool of himself with the clerk, that this was the worm inside him at work again. He asked for directions and left.
He found the right path, passed beneath the archway into the new part of the cemetery and climbed up the hill wondering how the coffin bearers could carry their load up that narrow lane without tumbling, coffin and all, onto the other graves, and how Diriana had managed to walk up there herself.
When he finally arrived, he saw, spread before him in the middle distance, a beautiful view of the Grand Harbour and open space aplenty. Not even the twittering of birds disturbed the silence, for trees had not been planted there yet nor, indeed, had room been left for them. The place and the silence instilled peace and oblivion. For a while, his mind at rest, he could not hear even the voice of the worm.
Number 17 was a corner plot at the end of one of several terraced rows of graves, each a man's height above the one below it. It occurred to him that this was like having a semi-detached residence and he liked that. But then he thought that if the family came to visit him, their young ones could fall off the terrace and hurt themselves. And not just the young ones, piped up the worm. Think of what they would say about you if anything happened to any of their elders, especially since you would no longer be able to come back with your tart remarks. For once, he agreed with his tormentor and chose plot number 18.
When he got back to the clerk, he found him talking to two of his colleagues, neither of whom made a move to leave the office as he came in.
"Ah, Onorevoli," one of them said, clearly not ready to let him get on with his business. "You have been keeping us busy, haven't you?"
"Busy?" he asked dryly.
"Well, we had to write to you twice, didn't we?"
"That's keeping you busy, is it? What would you have said if you'd had to carry me up there, then? Why don't you go off about your business, my friend, and let me finish mine?"
There was an unpleasant ring to his voice, as the worm did not fail to taunt him when he left the clerk's office.
The next elections were called earlier than expected and he congratulated himself that, in spite of the unending struggle within him, he had never stopped touring his constituency and had worked it well. Now, as before each election, he prepared a strenuous schedule for the last few weeks of his campaign so that, by the eve of polling day, he would have covered the area again swiftly, door by door. He would not say much, simply greet whoever opened the door to him and remind them of his candidacy. Working hard from dawn to dusk, he would not have time to listen to the voice of the worm, even though it would become more shrill instead of fading away to let him get on with it.
Towards the end of the race, he came to Diriana's street, which he planned to work well since many of the residents had been away when he had last been there in the summer. He knocked on her door and, waiting for her to open, wondered how she was. It had been some time since he had last seen her and, at her age, a month was as good as a year.
"Goodness me, look who's here," she cried hugging him. "So you haven't forgotten me this time."
"No, I haven't," he said warmly, moved by the tears of joy in her eyes.
"Have no fear for me," she said. "But you know, I think when another election comes round it won't be just Andrew's vote that you'll have lost. This time, you'll get my vote if they have to carry me to the polling station. But I really don't know if I'll ever make it to the next one. I'm going down too fast."
"Come, come, Diriana," he urged. "Don't lose heart. Why, you look better than I do."
"That's right, make fun of me, too."
"I would never do that. And by the way, I want you to know that I took your advice."
"Really," and she waited for him to tell her what advice that was.
"I did buy a grave."
"Oh, good," she cried, clasping his face between her hands and placing two round kisses on it. "I'm so glad you listened to me. And was I right or wasn't I? It really is beautiful there, isn't it? So now, if we do not meet at the next elections, at least we'll meet there."
Happy as a bird, she pressed him to her bosom.
(From the collection of short stories Honourable People)