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Shying away from limelight

"Mary Fenech Adami makes you feel at ease, as if you've been her lifelong friend. I admire her sincerity and I like her; she's practical" - Margaret Abela. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier.

"Mary Fenech Adami makes you feel at ease, as if you've been her lifelong friend. I admire her sincerity and I like her; she's practical" - Margaret Abela. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier.

Behind President George Abela is a strong but shy woman determined to walk alongside him through thick and thin... even if it means hobbling before the whole of Malta on a sprained ankle. Ariadne Massa speaks to her.

Margaret Abela put her best foot forward when the cameras flashed, and, smiling demurely, tried hard to retain elegant poise as she limped along the red carpet leading into St John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta.

Hundreds were glued to the television waiting to catch a glimpse of the new Presidential couple before George Abela took the oath of office on April 4. What stood out was the bandage draped tightly around Ms Abela's left ankle.

She lets out a soft giggle as she remembers how, after Pontifical Mass, she had to hobble along behind her husband as they walked through the crowd of well-wishers, who thronged Republic Street, to the Palace.

Speaking in a gentle voice, she recounts what happened on the eve of this important ceremony. They had been invited to appear on a television programme and once it was wrapped up she was eager to mingle with the guests. In the commotion, she moved back, little realising there was a step, and twisted her ankle.

"At the time it didn't hurt much, but when we got home my foot was swollen," she says, recalling how she tried to distract herself away from the niggling possibility she would be unable to walk alongside her husband on such an important day.

Not one to fuss or make a big deal, she decided she could sleep it off. But at night, she was in such a bad shape she could not even get up to take painkillers in the hope of easing the throbbing ache.

Wide awake, the clock's hands ticked slowly. Careful not to wake up the rest of the household for fear of ruining the special day for the family, she suffered in silence.

By 5.30 a.m. she got out of bed, but tottered when she attempted to stand on her leg. She had a shower, hoping to cool the swelling, but she was gripped by the thought that there no way she would be able to squeeze her foot into the gold satin heels.

"I was very down and at one point I told George I didn't think I was going to make it. There was no way I could walk," she says.

But Dr Abela was not even willing to entertain the possibility that his wife would not be by his side, so at 6.15 a.m. they called their doctor to come to the rescue.

The doctor bandaged her foot and just before she walked of their house in Marsascala, he gave her a jab to kill the pain.

"Somehow I managed to slip on my shoes... It's unbelievable really, remembering how it all worked out. I'm certainly never going to forget that day," she says, adding how she managed to last right through the afternoon.

However, she suffered the consequences of her efforts and she spent two weeks unable to walk properly because of her sprained ankle. But she is quick to add:

"At least I was there for the big day."

The interview is moved from the formal high-ceilinged room at San Anton Palace, where her husband receives dignitaries, to the Blue Room, which is slightly less formal.

Walking through one grand room after another, Ms Abela is quick to point out that the family quarters are much more homely.

With a series of appointments lined up for the day ahead, before she flies out with her husband for a four-day break in Taormina, Ms Abela is dressed in a tailored white skirt suit with black rose patterns. The only jewellery she wears is a simple string of pearls and her wedding band, and her face is bare, except for blusher and a dab of lipstick.

She has a natural beauty that is extremely low maintenance - cleansing, applying a face cream at night, and an SPF moisturiser during the day to protect her sensitive porcelain skin against the sun's harmful rays. She has embraced ageing and at 60 carries herself well.

"Beauty comes from within. As long as you are at peace with yourself, happiness radiates through. No matter what you do, you cannot delay wrinkles forever... I don't like the concept of plastic surgery and it's certainly not something I would consider. Having said that, I don't condemn women who choose this option," she says, blushing slightly.

Sitting up straight in the blue brocaded sofa, Ms Abela strikes a graceful pose, with her knees held together to the side, and her hands clasped tightly on her lap.

With the photographer snapping away, she finds it hard to loosen up at first, and confesses she has had to try and overcome her shyness since being catapulted into the public eye overnight.

"With Darlene's (Zerafa) help, I'm managing. She guides me through every aspect," she says, adding she was not particularly keen on interviews, but is slowly getting accustomed to them.

Unlike Japan's new First Lady, Miyuki Hatomaya - who has been making the headlines in the past week for her eccentricities and claims that her soul travelled to Venus on UFO - there is no way you will catch Ms Abela making a diplomatic gaffe or rocking the boat with a controversial statement; she prefers to take a back seat.

Asked if there is a handbook a First Lady has to follow, she says she quickly learnt the basics in the first week.

While Dr Abela was a familiar face due to the roles he held - a prominent lawyer, Malta Football Association president and Labour Party deputy leader, among others - his wife never sought the limelight.

Opposites attract, and she confides that the effusive traits of her husband have not rubbed off in the 42 years they have known each other: "George is very outgoing, but I tend to hold back; we've never changed that way."

The two met in 1967, while she was working in administration at the University and Dr Abela was a student. Laughing to herself, she says she was not immediately smitten, but he was not about to give up chasing the pretty blonde easily.

"He used to hang around with his friend Victor Busuttil. They were always together and would devise excuses to pass by my office," she says, her memory never failing whenever she has to recall a name or a date.

Their first date was on October 11, 1967, when Dr Abela invited her to join him for the birthday party of Noel Abela. They spent nearly 10 years together before tying the knot - their wedding plans had to be put on hold, while the young George pursued his five-year-long law degree.

The couple got married 33 years ago and are clearly still in love, holding hands wherever they go and are supportive of one another. So what's one thing she loves about him?

"The fact that he has so much initiative. He's always coming up with some new project," she says, admitting she finds it hard to keep up with him sometimes.

She does tease him about his penchant for being late, but it seems since he became President he made it a point to change.

"Before, if he had a case starting in court at 9.30 a.m., at 9.25 a.m. he'd still be at home. I used to worry about him."

Two years into their marriage, the couple had their firstborn, Robert, followed soon after by Maria. Ms Abela soon settled into her new role, content to run the house and take care of her children.

Apart from occasionally helping her husband run his legal firm, being a stay-at-home mum is a role she was happy to fulfil. But all this changed in one whirlwind year - her son was the first to get married 11 months ago, her husband was appointed President, she moved house to live at San Anton Palace, and her daughter tied the knot last month.

Did she ever dream of living in a palace when she was a young girl, absorbed in the world of fairy tales?

"No I never dreamt of palaces, even though I liked those stories, of course," she says, adding how at times it can get a bit lonely.

However, she does not dwell on this for long and her goal is to be a pillar of support for her husband through this chapter in of his career. She admits, when he first broke the news at the beginning of the year, she was stunned.

"I had a lot of mixed feelings, but then I warmed up to the idea. We spent a week mulling over it."

So how did her life change?

"Before I was a housewife so you can imagine. I never minded housework. I kept everything up to date and really enjoyed it," she says, adding she is still trying to get used to having everything done for her at the palace.

Instead of preparing home-cooked meals she has to settle for discussing the menu with the chefs. Her only request is that they steer clear of creams, and fatty produce, and to buy wholegrain pasta and rice. Taking on board the Abelas' health-conscious diet, the kitchen team has started baking wholemeal bread for the couple and there is always a fresh supply of fruit and vegetables in the fridge.

Seven years ago, Mrs Abela feared she was putting on weight and started walking religiously every day for an hour. She has kept this up since she moved to the palace, waking up at the crack of dawn for a stroll. Her husband, too, has tried to maintain his exercise regime and still goes for a run two to three times a week; even when he is abroad.

After her walk, she usually returns home, has a quick shower and joins her husband for Mass at the palace chapel. She spends her mornings seeing to matters at the Malta Community Chest Fund, and usually fits in a siesta, which energises her for the evenings of receptions ahead.

She also enjoys watching documentaries whenever she has a spare moment and anything with a medical theme will keep her engrossed for hours. She devours articles related to health and medicine, and whenever she speaks about the subject, her eyes sparkle and her voice goes up a few notches, signalling the excitement this profession stirs in her: "I would have loved one of my children to become a doctor but none of them took it up."

Instead, her son followed in his father's footsteps while her daughter specialises in Canto Lirico at the Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi in Milan. But she is supportive of their career choice.

Like any mother, she worries about whether they are eating well and living a good life. She has been keen to pass on the values her mother taught her.

"What I have tried to instil in them is that they have to work for their money and they should never take what's not theirs. I drum in that message of honesty all the time," she says, recognising she is happy her children were not raised in the palace, "they may have been spoiled".

She thanks her mother for giving them a good upbringing, despite the absence of her father, who died when she was 11. The youngest of five siblings, she was raised in Republic Street, then still known as Kingsway.

She lived in a big house with her grandmother, aunts and uncles before moving to a flat in Floriana overlooking Grand Harbour.

"We spent all day out in the street. We didn't play with dolls much, but we would join the boys to play catch and marble games," she says, adding that she even tried her hand at football.

From her childhood memories, she shifts the conversation to her role as chairman of the Malta Community Chest Fund, which she has taken over from Mary Fenech Adami.

Ms Abela holds a lot of admiration for the former first lady: "Even though I only know her a little bit, she makes you feel at ease, as if you've been her lifelong friend. I admire her sincerity and I like her; she's practical."

Ms Abela has made it her mission to promote the MCCF to raise enough funds for people in need and she has been especially touched by the cases of young children with cancer.

Rockestra, a concert merging rock with the classical sounds of a philharmonic orchestra, is one of the projects her team is promoting to raise funds.

The concert, being held on Saturday at the Malta Fairs and Convention Centre in Ta' Qali, will play pieces by Queen, The Beach Boys, Eagles, Led Zepplin, The Beatles and Deep Purple. It will also feature a light show by renowned projection artist and designer Ross Ashton.

"People are very generous, but you have to work hard and come up with innovative ways to raise funds, but we're a good team," she says.

She hopes this year's decision not to distribute gifts during the annual fund-raising campaign L-Istrina will not backfire. The annual event was heavily criticised for using gifts to lure people into donating money, so this year the MCCF, the main beneficiary, has taken on the event's organisation.

"I hope things go well. It's an experiment, but I'm convinced when people see what their money will go towards, the funds will pour in. I don't think people donate just to get a gift in return. I think it will be challenge for all of us. Let's hope for the best," she says.

The interview drawing to an end, she gets up, smoothens down her skirt and holds out a black and white photo, which a friend passed on during a recent reunion.

The young Margaret, who joined her older sister on a school outing, is instantly recognisable - her fair skin and warm, loyal smile give her away.

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