The Malta Independent 13 November 2019, Wednesday

Exclusive: Extract from Malta’s latest bestseller: Castillo by Clare Azzopardi

Tuesday, 17 July 2018, 09:25 Last update: about 2 years ago

The Malta Independent is exclusively reproducing the first chapter of Claire Azzopardi's Castillo - the recently published novel which has taken Malta's literary scene by storm.

Castillo, Azzopardi's first adult novel, is set in Malta in the turbulent 1980s. It is the story of Amanda, who was abandoned by her mother when she was only seven and was raised by her father.

Many years later, Amanda tracks down her mother and asks her the question she's been asking all her life: Why did you leave me?

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"I murdered two men," replies Emma, her mother, who now lives in a kip in Gharghur and spends her day chain-smoking. She had murdered two men who in 1976 had both posed for a photo with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi on his state visit to Malta. One of them is police inspector Dennis Castillo. "And I don't regret it," says Emma.

Clare Azzopardi is a highly acclaimed author, a favourite of both the critics and the public. Her children's books and her anthologies for adults invariably top the bestseller lists; she has repeatedly won the National Book Prize; and is one of the few Maltese authors whose work is translated, published and sold in various countries.

This extract of Castillo has been translated by Albert Gatt, Director of the Institute of Linguistics at the University of Malta.

Castillo is available for sale from all leading outlets or directly online from its publishers on merlinpublishers.com

 

 

Chapter 1

 

"Mrs Barbara?"

"Yes."

"Mrs Emma Barbara?"

"Yes."

"I'm ... I'm Amanda. Don't you recognise me?"

"Amanda?"

"Yes, Amanda."

"My Amanda?"

"      "

"Amanda, darling! You've grown so much!"

"Well it's been a few years ... quite a few years."

She stood there staring at me, staring at every contour of my face, as if trying to identify one of them. In the chill and the silence of Għargħur in January, I let her raise her right hand and touch my face like someone deprived of sight, unsure whether what she was touching was indeed her daughter's face.

"Are we just going to stand here on the doorstep, in the cold?"

I'm used to silence.

But this was silence of a different kind, an uncomfortable silence and I didn't know how to behave. "Guess I'd better leave then, for now anyway. I'll come back another time. When would work? Maybe some time in the morning?"

"Come in, do, come in. Quickly now, it's so cold eh, it's really turned cold lately hasn't it? You've grown so much! Don't mind all the confusion, darling, this place is in such a mess,

it's been a while since I've tidied it up. To be perfectly honest I was just getting started with the cleaning, but I'm so slow and there's too much, you see? Sorry I'm wearing my indoor clothes. I'm all over the place, really."

"I won't keep you very long, don't worry, Mrs Barbara."

"Emma. It's Emma."

But how do you bring yourself to utter the word ma? How is it even spelled? Ma. Ma-mà. Em-ma.

"Amanda."

It was almost surreal, that first meeting with her.

"It's about the house."

"What?"

I told her about the house, about papà. "So what's the best way to go about this, d'you reckon?"

"About what?"

"Your share. You know."

"What is it that you want, darling?"

"Well, money. I need the money."

"You keep everything then; I don't want anything."

"Don't say things you'll regret saying later."

"I'm practically a wreck now. There's nothing that I really need."

"In that case we'll need to sort out the paperwork."

"You tell me what to do."

"And there's still some stuff that belongs to you. Not much. But there are some things. Maybe you want to come by and take a look?"

"It's been a long time. Since I've not needed any of it in all this time --"

"Twenty-five years."

"That long?"

"Yes."

"Amanda --"

"Don't you want to see what's left?"

"What can there possibly be left?"

"Maybe something from my early years, with you?"

"Amanda, darling --"

"There's nothing you want? I think I'd better come back, give you some time to think this over anyway."

"Since you're here, you might as well stay a bit longer. The place is a shambles, sorry about that, if only you'd given me advance warning, I would have spruced up the place a bit, maybe given it a bit of a clean."

"Don't worry, I can't stay long, I need to go somewhere."

"You need to go somewhere?"

"Look, we don't need to decide about the house today but if you want --"

"Can I get you something?"

"I can't stay long."

"But what will you have? Tea, coffee, lemonade?"

"Papà ... Have you heard about --"

"I saw it in the paper."

"He suffered too much towards the end."

"Biscuits, a piece of cake, some fruit?"

"He was wetting himself."

"Cup of tea, coffee, or how about a mug of soup?"

"But you know, he became more talkative."

"Who? Robert? Do sit down for a bit."

I sat on the chair with my knees very tight together and my handbag in my lap. I asked her for a glass of water. Piles of paper in every corner, books scattered here and there, newspapers, mountains of them, everywhere I looked, cups and plates in the sink and on the windowsill, dank tea towels with brown stains hanging off the handle of the oven or the backs of chairs.

"How would you like it? Cold?"

"Cold if you have it."

The fridge was bursting with stuff. Greasy too. After taking out the water and pouring me a glass, she put on the kettle for tea. As soon as it started boiling, she poured water into the mug, opened the fridge to get the milk and in her confusion seemed to forget what she'd opened it for. She closed it again. She fished the teabag out of the mug and seemed to remember that she needed milk. She opened the fridge and took out the juice instead. She sat across from me, she with her mug, me with my glass. I stood up, opened the fridge and took out the milk. We said nothing. Between the gulps of water and the mouthfuls of tea, the silence continued to taunt us. I wish I'd taken a picture so that I could study her face afterwards. Was I planning to visit often, she asked. Of all the questions she could come up with, did it have to be this one? "Maybe you'd rather I didn't?" I said.

"Of course I'd like you to come."

"We could start filling the gaps --"

"But I just don't know what you want from me, darling."

"Filling the silence."

"I don't understand --"

"The habit of silence --"

"Darling --"

"Would you mind not calling me darling or dear or any of those things?"

"What should I call you then?"

"Amanda."

"They're just a manner of speaking, aren't they?"

"I find them irritating."

"I don't even notice that I use them. Look, won't you have a coffee as well?"

Although I didn't answer, she got to her feet to put the kettle on, took out a cup, the coffee, picked up a teaspoon from the sink, put some coffee in the mug and waited for the kettle to boil. Then she said, "Do help yourself to a biscuit, Amanda."

I wouldn't let them brush against my lips, those biscuits she offered me. Chocolate-covered coconut biscuits. Devon, of all brands. Yuck. The cup was greasy and chipped and made my stomach turn. Still, I drank. Just a little. We caught each other staring over the rims of our cups. There was the tiniest of moments when I felt like starting to scream, or maybe to cry. I'm not sure which it was anymore. "So what will we do about the house, then?" But she didn't answer and instead she stared hard at the pattern on the tablecloth.

"I know a good notary if you want to settle the matter. Will that work for you?"

"Whatever you say, Amanda."

She was studying my every move and being quite open about it. I picked up the cup, raised it slowly to my lips, took a little sip -- goodness that was bad, such crap coffee -- and slowly, soundlessly, lowered it into the round hollow in the middle of the saucer.

"How many years did you say it's been in all, dear?"

"Haven't you ever counted? Twenty-five years."

"Twenty-five? That's the number on Ġina's door."

"What?"

"Never mind, never mind darling. I'm off my rocker, you know? I did use to count yes, at the beginning, but then I stopped."

"I never stopped."

"But you were all right with papà weren't you?"

"Yes."

"And now you're here ... you're here ..."

"I'm here because of the house. But I think it's time for me to go now. Will you give me your mobile number so I can give you a call?"

"My door is always open. You can come whenever you like. Maybe John will be around next time, I could introduce you."

"John?"

"Won't you even have a biscuit, Amanda?"

She didn't want to hear about the house I had lived in with papà. She didn't want to come and draw her fingers through the dust on the photographs, see the cobwebs that had accumulated over the years. So I made up my mind that since she wouldn't come, I would keep knocking on her door, I would keep bringing her memories back. Now I'm not so sure that was a wise decision.

I drank the last of the vile coffee and stood up to go. She said it would be better if I visited in the morning. I said mornings were difficult for me. I didn't want her to know that I wasn't working, that I had a daughter, that I was looking after her the way one should, that I didn't want to leave her behind, not even for one minute. I didn't tell her about Matteo, about how we'd met. She didn't tell me why she left, how she left. I didn't tell her she was a grandmother. She didn't tell me why she hadn't taken me with her. Too many years had passed and I had just turned up on her doorstep without warning. You don't fill a twenty-five year gap just like that, abracadabra. I didn't tell her how much I used to cry alone in my bedroom, especially when we made Mother's Day cards in class and my teacher told me to make one anyway and give it to papà. And papa would put it on top of the television and we'd sit on the sofa looking at it in silence. I didn't say how jealous I was of my friends for having a mamà of their own. She didn't tell me about Cathy Penza and Dennis Castillo. She didn't tell me that she'd committed murder, that she'd murdered two men because of Cathy. One of them was Tommy, the husband of Ġina who lived at number twenty-five, and the other was Dennis, Dennis the police inspector. It was only later that she told me about those things. Only after we got used to each other and had built up a bit more trust. But it would have been better if I'd never learned about any of that.

Our sofa

 

Not everyone decides to die. Some people, in a fit of delirium, might decide they'd rather not stay with the living, and take their own lives. Then again, some people keep fighting till the very very last breath. They won't accept that their time is up. For some, the decision is taken by someone else, as in the case of Tommy Grech and Dennis Castillo. My papà didn't fit in any of these categories. Because papà decided to die without dying. He decided to exempt himself from life. Well before he got sick with cancer. As for me, I just couldn't take it.

 

"So it's all the same to you, whether I'm here or not?"

"     "

"That's what you're trying to say, isn't it? So I might as well leave home, 'cause looking at you slumped there, sort of dead and alive at the same time, not saying a word, like a puddle of brackish water, not moving, not changing ... and you're smelling pretty ripe too, how long has it been since you last showered?"

"     "

"Pops!"

"     "

"You're telling me that I should start fending for myself. Am I reading you right?"

"     "

"You know, I refuse to live with brackish water. Pa! Papà!"

 

I had no one except my pops. He gave me his all, as far as he knew how. When he actually died, I cried for weeks on end. Because even if he'd been brackish for a long time, when they laid the slabs over his grave I realised I could no longer use the words pops and papà and pa ... to address that someone, that one single person whom I could call using those words. The thing is, when he decided to die, he was still here, with me. I could still open the front door and shout "Pops, I'm home!" I could still say, "Look what I made you today, pa, a chocolate cake, just the way you like it." Or, "Look how many batteries I got you, papà." Or, "Yuck pops, open a window, it smells really stuffy in here! Pa. Papà!" As long as he was still here, cooped up in the house, on the red sofa or at the table on the wobbly chair, I could still think, he's still around, he's with me, I've still got him, I'm not alone. I would get home and even though he didn't speak to me I could feel his presence, I could speak to him, "Pa, I'm going to make you a cup of tea." I could listen to his breathing and understand what he meant right away, "Yes, do make me a cuppa," or "No, thanks." I could read his expression, which changed as my words filled up the room. But when I found myself looking at the coffin being lowered into a black hole in the ground, and when, shortly after, the slabs were sealed,I thought, this man I've lived alone with nearly all my life, whom I've mistreated, whom I didn't always understand when he tried to tell me something, whom I've insulted, hugged, cried with, who witnessed my terror of ghosts and monsters, who made me a cake on every birthday until I turned sixteen which we'd then devour between us, just the two of us, this man is now forever beneath a cloak of darkness. After the funeral, I went to his house, our house, sat on the same sofa, his sofa, our sofa, for a very long time and mourned him all alone, because that was the moment when it finally hit me that this was now my sofa, that was my chair at the table, and my papà would stay forever inside the confines of a frame on the coffee table.


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