Lucia was a little surprised at the newfound enthusiasm her 18-year-old daughter, Amalia, showed to hang out the washing to dry on their small balcony. It seemed that she was in such a hurry to take down one load of clothes and hang up the next lot that occasionally, the clothes from the preceding load had not yet dried completely. Strange, but Amalia always had a smile on her face when she returned and seemed to have lost her urgency, until her sisters finished washing the next load.
The small apartment around the corner from the piazza in Ħamrun took up the middle layer of a narrow, three storey building that was sandwiched between other buildings of the same type and age. In fact, the entire street was crowded with apartment buildings with only small variations in appearance or colour. The whole working-class suburb of Ħamrun was made up of similar streets containing similar blocks of flats. It was not until you walked down to the piazza and onto the High Street that the view opened up and the ambiance changed appreciably. Nevertheless, people who lived in the apartments took pride in the appearance of their building and tried to differentiate their apartments with ornate, brass doorknockers or a splash of colour on the heavy, wooden, front doors. The women who lived in ground floor apartments could be seen each morning on their hands and knees with their scrubbing brushes and their buckets of soapy water that smelt of disinfectant, washing the front door step and patterned tile floor of the vestibule of their building. The women who lived in higher level apartments dutifully scrubbed their sections of the internal flight of stairs and landing. The women engaged in this zealous ritual every morning partly for self-gratification and partly for status, for it served not only as an important part of their identity as women, but also avoided the serious shame that would have befallen them from being gossiped about as being unclean or lazy.
Amalia was an attractive young woman with deep, dark burgundy coloured hair that looked black until it was lit up by the intense Maltese sun. She had the “skin of milk and honey” that her female Phoenician ancestors were famous for and the high cheekbones of her mother. The narrow, scattered band of tiny brown freckles over her nose and the top of her cheeks suggested the influence of a fair-haired relation in the distant past, while her sensitive dark green eyes contributed to her arresting, shy smile. Amalia had a demure habit of tilting her head slightly whenever she smiled and glancing upwards, almost apologetically. Her calm, unpretentious nature both complemented and enhanced her natural beauty. All six of Lucia’s girls were pretty, but as the eldest Amalia had developed into something more. She was special to Lucia because after three infant deaths, Amalia was her first child to survive past the first few years of life.
Amalia had been noticed by many of the local boys of Ħamrun. Her age, good looks and developing figure meant that her father, Dionisio, had to be particularly vigilant towards this daughter. He believed her to be immeasurably above the level of any local boy of their neighbourhood and he thought that her sweet nature made her vulnerable. His fierce reputation and persona had been enough to ward off the young men in the past, but lately Dionisio was feeling insecure about his eldest.
Amalia was aware of being noticed. The trips to church and shopping were always crowded with siblings and parents, but the girl had noticed the boys looking at her and whispering to each other while smiling in a salacious way.
Amalia had also noticed a handsome boy of about her own age who lived in one of the apartments at the back of the building where she lived. He appeared to be different from the other boys in that he did not seem to go in for the staring, whispering and grinning, although she once caught him sneaking a peek at her during Mass. One sunny morning, Amalia was hanging out the washing when she saw the same handsome boy on one of the terraces that made up the maze of balconies to the rear of her family apartment. He smiled at her and waved. She smiled at him and waved back. The next day at washing time he was there again. Amalia and the boy exchanged smiles and waves once more.
This behaviour continued for weeks until the couple felt a familiar ease with each other, even though they had never actually spoken. Over time, they managed to learn each other’s names and some other personal details from gossip with friends after Mass on Sundays. They also managed to exchange innocent little notes through willing accomplices. They eventually succeeded in chatting for a few minutes after mass on several occasions and were delighted by each other.
One day, the young man finally summoned up enough courage to actually knock at her family’s door. Earlier, he had waited for Dionisio to step out of the apartment and prayed that it would be Amalia who answered the door.