of TWO, a novel
by Teodor Reljic
Mum smiles through her red curls. The plane
is white when I wake up and see her smiling, and I’m sure she’s
still sleeping —I think I hear her snoring but when I wake up
the grey-white of the plane is what’s taking over my eyes.
It smells of soap and air-conditioned air,
and it’s making my spit taste sour. I move my tongue around to
make it go away but no, I’m just rolling the same smell over and
over in my mouth and it won’t change unless I spit.
After I blink a few times the colours begin
to come back slowly and I look at mum. It’s the red hair that
makes me feel awake first. That makes me feel good, excited.
That reminds me that we’re going away somewhere that’s both new
and not new.
I reach out to touch mum’s face. I don’t know
why I want to do this but I do it anyway. There’s something nice
about doing things when you’re only half-awake. It feels like
I’m reaching into the world of her stories. The Vermillion
When I touch her chin she shakes her head to
say “No”, and I feel my dad’s fingers —not his hand—on my arm.
“Shh,” one of them says.
“And how old are you?”
The “you” is longer, thinner than when dad
says it, or when anyone back in England says it. Sometimes mum
says it like that when we’re in my room and one of us says
something funny, and she speaks while she laughs. Or when they
have other grownups over and they’re drinking wine and telling
jokes that I don’t understand.
I notice the “you”, and I follow the noise
and look up, past my dad’s long thin arms and sharp shoulders.
The sounds wake me up. I feel the thin, round noise, I dream it
before it happens; a curled ‘o’ through thick lipsticked lips.
She woke me up, the woman who said it woke me
up, which must mean I had fallen asleep again. Does that mean
we’ll be in Malta soon? It is a woman, yes: I see her in her
uniform and I notice that she’s giving me something. Her skin
isn’t like mum’s but her hips are, coming out as if they’re
appearing out of nowhere, as if the fat suddenly starts under
“It’s a cake,” my dad says. “Take it.”
He puts the paper he’s been reading on his
lap and stretches out his hand to drop the little table in front
of me. He takes the cake from the woman’s hand —even though he
asked me to take it. Mum would never do that. Mum always means
what she says. I wish we had woken up together, but she’s still
She looks big in the little seat. The thick
curls of her hair look exploded, running free. Her eyes are
closed shut, but they still look big, like old fruit behind a
jungle bush. Her mouth is just a little bit open, a small crack.
I wonder if the air coming out of it smells like the
“Eat your cake,” dad says.
“I’m nine years old,” I tell the stewardess,
but when I look up to meet her eyes again, I see that she’s
I know we’re in Malta when we get out of the
air-conditioned air. The plane opens to let us out and I feel my
hard; my nose and mouth are hit by something
invisible and hard. It’s the Malta air. “Thick like milkshake,”
mum said once and I remember this now —I remember it and
everything else, so much more: I remember what Malta means.
Then we’re waiting in line at the airport as
always and dad asks me, “So how many times have we been to
“Twice,” I tell him. I remember the two
summers —I can’t forget. Why would I forget? I close my eyes and
think about them and count “one, two,” in a tiny whisper and
with the fingers of my left hand. I don’t want dad to see this
and I don’t think he does—he’s so tall that sometimes I can’t
even see his face, just his chin.
“Good, good,” he taps me on the back. I turn
around and I notice that he’s smiling.
It wasn’t that hard to remember.
Was dad ever a kid?
When we leave the queue to pick up our bags,
my dad glides past. Sometimes he does that, so that we’ll just
follow him. While we walk, mum puts her hand on my shoulder and
leans down to whisper in my ear.
“We have to be careful about Vermillion
stories now,” she says. At first I don’t pay attention that much
because I really want to notice what the smell from her mouth is
like. I’m still curious about it.
It’s bad breath, but I also catch her perfume
— like the flowers of Hyde Park. Nothing about mum can be bad
all the way.
“Look at me,” she says. I love it when she’s
just woken up. When her eyes are still crinkly, when it feels
like she could be a kid like me. It’s the eyes that stay up all
night to tell stories.
“We have to be careful, and you have to pay
attention. Dad will be listening.” She points a finger out into
the darkened space where our luggage waits. At first I think
she’s pointing at nothing because I can’t see him; there are
lots of people milling about the conveyor belt, but then his
shape comes out from one of the columns.
He’s that tall.
“In Malta, the walls are thin,” mum says, and
nudges me to move ahead.
My grandparents are waiting for us, and they
kiss me and kiss me as soon as they see me, because nannu
snatches me up from behind that metal frame we have to walk
through. I hate being kissed like that, their lips smothering
and wet. But I love that I can finally see them —that I can
finally smell that old smell, a smell I’m not sure forms part of
the house or comes from their own skin.
Because they will make everything about
summer great. We’ll be staying at the big house and going to the
beach and they’ll buy me sweets and ice-cream all the time, when
dad isn’t looking.
Dad shakes hands with nannu and hugs nanna,
and tells me to tell them how my trip was.
“It was good, a bit bumpy,” I said. For some
reason, they laugh. I don’t want them to laugh so I keep
“I missed everything,” I tell them. And they
all laugh. All of them, like they hear it crisply and clearly,
like they had been waiting for it. Nannu, almost as tall as dad
but stooped, wears sunglasses indoors. Nanna, fat and with eyes
like mum’s: big and round and green.
Dad, whose face I have to lift my head to
see. Who doesn’t laugh much at what I have to say so when he
actually does, I want it to go on forever.
And mum, who hugs me from behind when she
laughs and says “awww”, and lifts me up into her arms, and we’re
We’re in Malta, and the sun in the evening is
the best thing I’ve ever seen.
The first two days were nice and hot and they
were wet, too. They reminded me of those first two summers,
straight away. The beach. Nanna and nannu. How water tastes
different in the sea. How scary the rocks are if you’re not
careful; how I always look for the ladder on the rocky beaches
and how dad always follows behind me.
That smell of barbeque. How I love to watch
the sun set with the smoke of the barbeque flying up like a bird
that keeps its wings open and then disappears in the half-dark.
Everything was already in those first two
days, as it was two summers ago. How do we even know the
difference between years? How can you tell what is memory, and
what is real?
I am thinking this because now, on the third
day, there is shouting in the house. It’s a rented house
somewhere that’s called San ••wann, which is not at all close to
the sea and is full of just buildings and cars. Even their
church is boxy, like a building made quickly, like it’s made of
The flat looks just like our flat in London,
more or less. I can’t decide whether it’s bigger or just darker.
There are parts of it I haven’t seen yet, or maybe I have seen
them and it all just feels like a dream because with the bright
hot sun outside that enters even through the dark blue curtains,
the shady parts of the house look even shadier. Like they could
go on forever.
It’s also more yellow. The bits that aren’t
painted over are yellow like the soft sun in the evening.
The noise is coming from one of the shady,
hidden rooms. Maybe it’s their bedroom. When I imagine them
fighting, shouting at each other in their room, I picture the
words coming out of their mouths—hard, harsh words, some of them
I think in Maltese—and it almost feels good to imagine their
shady, cool bedroom.
Everything is clean and neat like a hotel.
There are blue-patterned sheets and there’s purple wallpaper,
and after a day at the beach all I want is to go in there,
snuggle up next to mum and listen to Vermillion stories.
But now in the corridor, I am alone, and the
sun is dividing it sharply down the middle and all that I hear
of my mother’s voice are shouts. I can’t make out the full
sentences, but what I notice is that the angrier mum gets, the
more she uses Maltese.
“•aqq allec —”
“Hallini — ”
There’s a lot between those words, but these
are the words that stick to me. In the shady part of the
corridor their shapes are in shadow under dark blue and black.
Their voices are the same: quiet, hidden but behind the door I
can only imagine that they’re shouting at each other, that even
dad —who never moves when he speaks — is moving his arms up and
Mum’s Maltese words burst in the shadow and
they’re almost like a picture in my head. I feel a pull inside
me when I hear them, like a little sting, because all they
remind me of is anger. Mum’s anger. Which is like when you slip.
Which is like when somebody slaps you and you don’t know why. I
don’t want to be dad right now because I know that when mum is
angry, there is nothing that can stop her. When she’s angry she
is the only person who’s right. When she’s angry, she wants to
make you feel bad about everything that you did, or tried to do.
When she’s angry and when there are Maltese
words coming out of her mouth there’s nothing that can help you.
They stop talking, and I see mum’s outline
getting bigger through the door. I run to my room.
Dad goes to the living room, opens the fridge
and takes a beer. I don’t see all this but I hear it from my
room. Even though it’s far away down the corridor I hear
everything. Mum was right, the walls are thin.
I hear dad sigh after his first sip. It’s a
long sigh, and I hope he’s really relaxing. I try to listen to
mum but then I regret it, because I hear her crying, and it’s
not the quiet crying.
I’m bored and worried. And there’s nothing to
do except remember where mum had left off. Where she had left
The forests were made of shadows and
rustling. Vermillion always thought the woods would be green:
green, the lush green of home; that they’d remind him of home.
But as he ran through the forest to save his
life — which was still so little — he could neither see nor feel
anything except the dark, the moving dark, the squeeze of the
black soil and the wet impact of the leaves and branches on his
Vermillion wished he had never hidden from
the truth. He wished he was still home, and that nothing had
changed. With each step he took deeper into the forest, the boy
began to resent the stories he had read, again and again, in the
basement. They made adventure and escape seem like it was the
most freedom you could ever have.
But the forest is swallowing me, he thought
as he gasped for breath and summoned as much courage as he
And still he heard the footsteps. And still
they approached, closer and closer …
It’s mum’s voice that makes the stories true.
Without her, when I try to imagine what happens it all just
feels smoky, like thoughts made out of air, forgotten as soon as
dreams are forgotten after you wake up.
I wait for my mum to stop crying but then I
think: why isn’t dad doing anything either? I move to the living
room, just brushing the floor with my feet. There’s a beer can
on the floor. It feels like a whole hour has passed when I
finally get to dad.
In that hour, in that strange time, I can
imagine another Vermillion story …
He’s asleep in the chair. People often sleep
during the day in Malta, but I wonder if they only do this in
Dad is wearing a white shirt. The top part of
his chest is flat, then there’s a bump, and he has a little
belly but not a big one, not like nannu’s, which I remember from
the beach. His little hairs look like trapped flies in a
spider-web. They’re sticking to his shirt—he must be feeling
hot, he must be sweating. The fan is on but we have no
air-conditioning here: that’s one of the things mum said was
good about going to her parents’ place but still, my dad didn’t
want to move from here.
He isn’t snoring yet, but his breathing
sounds like he’s about to sneeze.
I really want to play with his camera. I
really want to see what he keeps in his big folder of drawings.
One day when he came back from work he told me he’d show me his
‘storyboards’ and the word excited me so much that I couldn’t
wait. Were they like board games made of stories that you had to
tell each other again and again, and the winner would be the one
to tell the most stories, and faster? Or were they blocks with
stories on them that you exchanged like cards? But that night —
it was a bit before Christmas, maybe closer to summer —he forgot
about them before I went to bed, and I was so excited about what
would happen to Vermillion that I forgot about it too.
I think that folder has to be in his little
suitcase: he puts all his work stuff into that one, and he’s
always going on at mum for carrying too many suitcases with her
when we travel.
Dad starts to snore, and I think about the
‘storyboards’ some more. And when I walk down the corridor
again, afraid that he’ll wake up but wanting that folder so bad,
mum calls me from the bedroom.
“William, let’s talk.”
I don’t like mum telling me Vermillion
stories during the day, and I’m glad she doesn’t, now. She tells
me about how I shouldn’t be too worried about her and dad, that
they’re fighting because it is just so hot and that they’re
tired from the trip.
Mum doesn’t look like she’s been crying. Her
face is clean, though she hasn’t been to the bathroom to clean
it for sure, and she smiles at me when we talk, like nothing’s
happened. Mum is always like this: after she cries, nothing
happens. Dad sometimes spends days frowning after a fight.
“I just hate stewing around here, William,
that’s all, you know— ”
“What does stewing mean?”
“Oh, well … it means you’re really hot,
because it’s like you’re being put in a stew, that thick soup,
All of us in one big soup. Boiling under the
starlight in a cauldron. Where did I first see that? Where did I
first think that? Sometimes when mum speaks to me, and not just
when she’s telling stories, these pictures immediately appear in
my mind and I don’t even know where I get them from.
But I think I understand what mum means. This
is one of my favourite things. When I see how words are
connected to the real world. The thick air is like soup, and the
sun is warm everywhere unless you’re in deep shade.
“Summer is long, isn’t it?” I say.
“Depends what you mean, Will — ”
“I mean, it’s like one long day.”
“Well, it is to you. You’re lucky. You don’t
have to worry about anything yet. But when you’re as old as I am
“How old are you?”
“I’m thirty-seven. Can you imagine that?”
I can’t. Not really. I’m not sure I even
understand how years work. There aren’t any pictures in my mind
to fit the word ‘years’ yet. I know that there’s spring, summer
and then Christmas and the New Year and a year has then passed,
but I don’t understand what all that time passing means.
Thirty-seven. Thirty-seven New Years passing by. In a second I
imagine one New Year’s Eve, two, three … but after a while I
can’t imagine them anymore.
“And how old is dad?” I say. It slips out of
my mouth. I didn’t even know I had the question in my mind.
“Oh, dad is younger, much younger. He’s a
baby!” She’s smiling when she says this, the same way she smiled
when she told me how old she was. It’s a strange smile … a smile
that says she might be joking, that she might be making fun of
me. She never smiles like this when she’s telling me Vermillion
“He’s thirty-one.” She whispers the number to
me like it’s a secret.
And then, I feel like everything is the way
it should be. That mum and I exist somewhere alone, together,
and that nobody else can hear what we say.
Then we talk some more about the heat and the
food, and when we wake dad up from the chair, we all go to the
supermarket and buy things to make a salad, and I tell them that
I want orange juice, and we get that too.
“You know, I really feel like Valletta,” dad
“Oh but it’s summer, we should go to the
beach first,” mum says.
“You’re right, you’re right,” dad says. He
scoops a bit of salad into his plate, and looks at me. There’s a
smile on his face. It’s small, but I can see it clearly because
his skin is pale and his lips are bright red, like a lobster.
Soon, his skin will be just as red too.
“Another beer?” I ask, and they both burst
out laughing, and dad says, “No thanks, Will, beer is not good
for you. Anyway, where do you want to go tomorrow?”
I want to go to nanna and nannu’s because
there I could play in the old house, that’s big and full of
shady corners I’m not supposed to go into. I want to then go to
the beach, like mum said, because then it would get really hot
so I could swim in the sea, which would make me feel good not
just because it’s nice and cold but also because I only learnt
how to swim last year, and want to make sure I remember. Then I
want to go get an ice-cream in Sliema, and look at videogames
with dad while mum goes around looking for clothes. I don’t want
to go to Valletta —it’s old and boring, and all you can do is
walk, walk next to other sweaty people.
“I wanna go anywhere,” I say, because I know
we won’t go to Valletta. Because mum said we shouldn’t.
Mum has a glass of white wine with the salad
and when she’s done, she tells dad, “So we’ve reached a
compromise, then?” She smiles. I’m not sure what she means, I
was distracted thinking about where we were going. Later mum
tells me that we’ll be going to nanna and nannu’s in the
evenings, and that we’ll spend the days here.
“Is that ok with you?” mum says, tucking me
in with a thin sheet, the window open but covered with a
“Yes it’s ok … mum, where do we live?”
“We live in England, hanini … you were born
“No,” I say. “I mean, where’s this, now,
what’s this called?”
“Oh,” she smiles. “This is San Gwann. It’s a
… suburb,” she says. When she realises that I don’t know what
this means, she winks and says, “Look it up.”
This is when I realise that she won’t be
sleeping in the same bed as me while we’re here, and I feel
something inside me. Maybe it’s a sting, or something is pulling
me. She isn’t moving around in the same way that she moves
around before she sits next to me in bed to tell me a story.
She’s moving around in the same way as when she’s making lunch
or dinner. Her red hair is bouncing. Her hips fill the room when
she moves from one place to another. She fiddles with the mesh
over the window after she tucks me in. She opens and closes
drawers, checking for I don’t know what.
She’s getting ready to leave the room and go
back to the world with dad.
“No Vermillion tonight, Will, it’s late and
we have to be up for the beach early tomorrow. Promise to tell
you one on the way, and dad will just have to deal with it.”
The stories will have to be dreams tonight.
And I never liked dreams.