I heard Georgia and Sasha in the playroom, finding the presents, and ripping the paper off the new dress-ups and accompanying interactive digital games I had bought. The children appeared with their respective Iron Man and Dare Devil masks on, holding the boxes containing iPads with the preloaded games. “Thanks Grandma”, they chorus.
Georgia asks, ”Where are your presents, Grandma?” Marita looked embarrassed.
I smiled at the children and said, “Having you two here on my birthday is my present.”
“I’ll help them with the devices Mum. Why don’t you sit down for a while?”
She went and fetched me some champagne, and then disappeared with the children. The caterer arrived with the food, set it up and left. It turned out to be another hour and a half before Stanley, Nella and Rodolpho arrived, and we served the oysters straight away. The children went to the playroom with some mini hotdogs, burgers and salad, and then the adults exchanged bland pleasantries over crispy-skinned Salmon.
The children returned when I called “birthday cake.” Georgia clapped her hands and leaped about when she saw the large chocolate ganache covered cake with pink sugar roses, and piping declaring “Happy Birthday Margaret.” The cake was ablaze with light from many silver and pink candles.
I invited the children to help me blow them out, and I smiled at the look of horror on Stanley’s face when he saw the spittle dousing the cake received. Marita was thoughtful enough to take a couple of photos with Georgia’s iPad. Everyone fidgeted, and enquired after each other, competing with their stories as to who has had the worst or the best time since last they’d met. There was a tense exchange between Rodolpho and Stanley:
“So who’s the latest flame Roddy ”, Stanley threw back another whisky.
“How’s you insider trading friend, Stan.” I met Stanley’s eyes and he turned to his brother, and said, “I’m sorry, Rodolpho.” He nodded his head and continued eating in silence. I almost tripped over myself with eagerness to reach the front door when the bell went.
Ushering the children into the playroom and the adults into my late husband’s study, I introduced Egles Stockans, their father’s lawyer of many years. Egles wasted no time with chitchat. His baritone voice was business-like as he read the will. Every other face in the room changed as the impact of Mario’s will hit. Not one of them had received a thing—not a book, not a 100-dollar bill. In the stunned silence, and while ignoring the hostile looks directed at me, I explained about the two houses I had received: “The house in which you have dined today I have given to you for your use, but the house in Portofino, Italy I intend to live in until I die.” I turned to Marita, “I hope you will come and visit me there with the children.”
The four adults followed me as I left the study and went upstairs.
Marita spoke as we entered my bedroom,” But mother, how will you live in Italy on your own?”
“Excuse me a moment.” I turned to Rodolpho and asked, “ Will you show Mr Stokans out, please?”
He nodded and disappeared. I remember thinking Rodolpho must have been distracted not to play a practical joke, but then he had been supervised the whole time.
“Marita”, hang on.” I stuffed some more items into my one small suitcase: a couple of pairs of loafers and a few silk blouses rolled up and pressed into a lingerie bag. Marita followed me as I went into the walk-in robe for some permanent press slacks. As I took off my blouse and pulled on a cotton knit sweater, I declared, “I’m not going alone.”
“You’re not! May I ask who suggested this craziness?”
I was angry at her attitude. “My, you’re showing a lot of concern for a daughter who’s hardly told me anything for 20 years.”
I closed my case and wheeled it to the hall door. “Because you are my daughter I’ll give you one word — Nicolo.”
“Nicolo!” gasped Stanley who hadn’t spoken since the stunning revelation downstairs. “What’s that ex-employee of Dad’s running after you for?”
“Isn’t he years younger than you Mum?” said Marita.
“Nicolo, who is actually only eight years younger, and I have been in love for forty years. Four years after I married your father he left his employ because we couldn’t bear it. I wouldn’t be unfaithful to your father despite his mistress.” I plunged on. “By the way, Marita that doesn’t mean you have to put up with that weasel Ted. Mario was not the model husband but he never hit me, or chastised me like a child. He always encouraged me in my career, and remembered my birthdays, now I’m being real about it that most likely was Nicolo, and the other secretaries. Anyway, Ted treats you like a dog.”
“But Nicolo, How dare he?” burst out Stanley. “He’s just after our father’s money?”
“ Actually Stanley when I met Nicolo in the supermarket the day after your father’s funeral, I invited him over for coffee, and I proposed to him. It was he who suggested I leave this house for you children’s use. Nicolo’s family lives in Portofino. He has lived there for eight out of the last twenty years, in his own house.”
“Mum, you can’t be serious”, Marita now spoke. “ What about my job, the kids?”
“Marita, you hate that job. Why don’t you go back to law? Living with Ted has turned a confident, high-achieving woman into a mouse.” I walked to my bedside bureau, and beckoned Marita towards me. I handed her an envelope. “In there is some cash, and the card of my dear friend Carmel Kelly. She said you and the children might stay with her for as long as you like. It’s up to you!” Tears appeared in her eyes, and she hugged me. “ I know why you understand, Mum. I saw and remember more than you think.” We made eye contact and I nodded.” Come and visit me when things are settled.”
I turned to a bemused Stanley. “If you wanted to sell this house to help your sister get into practice, I’d approve the sale .”
Stanley looked around, said “ Where’s Nella?” and headed downstairs. I followed him, but while he turned to go towards the kitchen, I went to the phone in the foyer and called a taxi. I had trouble hearing the call taker, because a bellow and curses were heard from the kitchen. I went to investigate via the side door, and found Rodolpho had spread the spittle-laden ganache from the cake behind the main kitchen door. Stanley was seated in it. Rodolpho, Nella, Georgia and Sasha were forking pieces of the middle of the cake into their respective mouths. Rodolpho looked at me with a cheeky, chocolate-smeared grin, and Stanley groaned. I shuddered with relief: I am no longer legally responsible for what happens under this roof.
I closed my eyes and imagined myself seated at a table beneath a wizened olive tree, sipping a glass of Lambrusco, and holding dear Nicolo’s hand, as the sun set over the Ligurian Sea. With no intention of encouraging them, I laughed and laughed.
Now I shade my eyes from the glare of the aquamarine sea, as I enjoy the sight and sound of my grandchildren splashing in the foaming shallows.