The Cup Bearer
"I know; Guido told me." Emilio took the photograph and studied it for a moment. "Is this my dad? I do look like him, don't I?"
"Yes. his name is Manuel Diaz Lupino. Now you understand my reaction when I saw you at the door. I'm sorry if you think I'm an unfaithful -."
"Don't be. Who'd want Guido for a father, anyway?"
"His five kids would."
"Oh, yeah, I'm sorry; I play the guitar too."
"I know," Rita blinked back fresh tears. "As a toddler, you were fascinated with your Uncle Julio's guitar and wouldn't leave it alone. He made you a half size one and taught you to play."
"I know about that too. He gave it me when I went to see him."
"Really? Do you still dance?"
"Of course." Rita watched him loosen his tie and open his top shirt button; a positive sign. "Tell me about Manuel. How did you meet him?"
Rita blushed. "I went to Spain with some friends for two weeks. Guido was on board ship somewhere in the Far East and I thought it wouldn't do any harm to have a few days in the sun. Manuel and his family came down to our hotel to entertain the guests. I fell in love with him as soon as I saw him. We spent as much time together as we could. It was just a holiday romance as far as I was concerned. He went to Madrid to study music and I came home to Perquita, your elder sister. I as already showing when Guido arrived home. I expected him to be angry but he broke down and told me he'd been unfaithful as well. We promised to stick together and Guido said he'd adopt you. He never did, of course. Then the trouble started. He'd got involved with some criminals. I never did understand any of it, but he said they were trying to kill him because he owed them some money. My parents lent him enough to pay them back but they weren't satisfied, and Guido begged me to go back to Tamarigo with him. He said we'd be safe there. I told my parents not to tell anyone where we'd gone, in case these men came looking for us. I wish I hadn't now, because a young man answering Manuel's description visited their farm in Lancashire about eight years ago. They were on holiday in Ireland at the time. Their farm hand told the visitor I had gone away, he didn't know where. The young man said he'd come back but he never did."
"Have you tried to find him?"
"I've been too ill and I have the family to look after. One of my friends went back to Spain last year and tried to find him but the gypsies had disappeared."
"So, he doesn't know I exist?"
Emilio handed the photograph back. "I could find him if you want me to."
Rita shook her head as she popped the photograph back in the wallet and thought of the missed romance. "Don't find him for my sake. Find him because you want to meet your father."
"I might do that. Now tell me about the family. I guess I'll have to meet them sometime." The corners of Emilio's mouth lifted in a soft smile.
Pleased, Rita took out another photograph, handed it to him and pointed to each face in turn. "This young lady is Perquita, she's seventeen. The pretty one who looks like me is Maria, thirteen. The big boy who's the image of his dad is Jose, eleven. This is Ramon, he's seven, and the little madam in charge of everyone is Lucia."
Emilio frowned at the picture for a moment. "Maria looks familiar. I seem to remember her following me about."
"She adored you. You were her champion."
"I don't remember Lucia."
"You wouldn't, she was born the day you ran away. In fact, it was you who delivered her."
"You're kidding me!"
Rita smiled at the sick look on Emilio's face. "I'd gone to the next village to help make a wedding dress. We all used to help out like that. You went with me as I was near my time. I'd been having backache for a few days but Lucia wasn't due for another two weeks so I didn't think anything of it. My babies always arrived on time. Halfway home, Lucia decided to make an early appearance, and a quick one. You delivered her and cut the cord with my sewing scissors and wrapped her in your shirt. Then you ran home to get help and Julio and Perquita carried us home. But by the time we arrived you had gone. Don't feel guilty about leaving me to handle a brutal husband on my own. I put the idea of running away into your head, myself."
Rita's eyes misted over and she swallowed hard. "I couldn't bear to see him beat you anymore. You used to protect me, you know? You were my little soldier, always looking out for me and the kids, and taking the brunt of his temper. I don't know how, but you used to know how to get him away from me. Those were the times you used to come home bruised and bloody."
"Why did he pick on me and not the others?"
"You weren't his child."
"That didn't give him the right to beat me. At least he'll never find me here."
Rita's hopes lifted. "I thought you weren't going to stay?"
Emilio gave her a ghost of a smile. "We'll see. I have three plans to choose from. Plan A, I give you enough money to see you and kids right until they all finish school, and head back to Nashville with no strings to hold me down. Plan B, I stick around for a bit and get to know you and the family enough to help, then head for home. Plan C is more complicated. My formal schooling in the States lasted two weeks; I hated it. After that Tony had me tutored, so I'd have to get used to the British education system. I'd have to find new teachers for music, dance and skating. It would be a whole new life and I don't think I want that right now."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"Not now. I need to sleep." Emilio put his head back against the settee and let out a wide yawn. "Air Travel does that to you."
Rita got to her feet. "You can stretch out on the spare bed if you like." Still yawning, Emilio followed her to the spare bed and lay down on his side with his hands under his left cheek. Rita bit back more tears as she saw again the child of ten years ago. She took the cover from her own bed and bent to tuck it round him then a thought crossed her mind. "Emmie, Mr Grafton said in his letter that you don't have a home to go back to. Where will you live?"
Emilio opened his eyes and gazed up at her. "In a kids home or with foster parents till I'm eighteen or I can go to court and declare myself emancipated."
"To be sure, I wouldn't know what that means."
"It means I'd get the Graftons off my back but I'd have to fend for myself.
"It's no big deal. I've done it before, I'll do it again." He closed his eyes and Rita thought he had finished, but saw his lips move. "Irish!"
"The way you talk, are you Irish?"
"My parents are, but I was born in Manchester, just like you." After planting a kiss on his cheek she unlaced his shoes, and slipped them off, and carried them and his jacket to the wardrobe. By the time she had put them away and turned round, her son was breathing steadily. She sat down on her own bed, thankful that their first meeting was over, and happy just to sit and feast her eyes on the image of Manuel. She was sure in her heart, that everything would work out fine for them, so she let visions of a complete family fill her thoughts. She let her imagination range through scenes of Emilio having fun with the boys who would learn to look up to an older brother. No doubt Lucia would work her charms on him and claim him as her own playmate. Maybe, now, she could relax and think about herself for a change. She needed rest and a chance to think about what the doctors had said about needing an operation on her heart. Something about a bi-pass; she didn't understand half what she had been told. What if it all went wrong? You heard such stories about that. Well, if it did, Emilio's was here now and … A soft knock on the door brought her out of her daydream.
She crossed the room on tip-toe, which she realised was a silly precaution, and opened the door to find Thomas Grafton and Don Clooney standing in the hall with a blonde haired lady Rita guessed was Mz. Achres. Don Clooney's bulk towered over them, his usually cheerful face sober with concern. She placed a finger to her lips and stepped out of the bedroom, closing the door behind her. "My son is sleeping; well fed but very tired."
Thomas smiled. "I take it the afternoon tea was a good idea and things went well?"
"Better than I had hoped, thank you."
"In that case I shall follow Emilio's example and get some rest myself. Mr Clooney and Mz. Achres will look after any further arrangements, if that's all right with you?"
"Would you be staying in Manchester overnight, Mr Grafton?"
"I believe that would be best, under the circumstances, although it seems you are doing a far better job of melting the iceberg than Edward and I."
Rita smiled with relief. "In that case, why don't the three of you let in the New Year in true Irish style? The flat will be a bit overcrowded but I have an idea which will melt the iceberg a little bit more, if Mr Clooney and Mz. Achres wouldn't mind helping me?"
At precisely one minute to midnight on New Year's Eve, Emilio followed Don Clooney up the stairs to the second floor flat of a run-down Victorian house in Altrincham. They stopped outside a door with peeling paint, and listened to the sound of childish laughter and Christmas music. According to Thomas, the family would be watching the festivities on the television while toasting the New Year with the bottles of wine and soft drinks Thomas had brought with him. Emilio examined the door and wondered how easy it would be to break it down, just like the one they had passed on the ground floor. He wrinkled his nose at the smell of cat spray, urine and stale beer wafting up from below. That, and a couple of youths sniffing aerosols in the shelter of the ground floor hallway, painted a far different picture from the glittering party he would have enjoyed with Tony's Country Music friends in Nashville.
Don handed him a heavy carrier bag then stepped back to merge with the shadows, checked his watch and signalled for him to knock on the door. Emilio glanced down at the carrier bag, and felt trapped. Too bad all the flights back to Nashville were booked up till Monday. He rapped sharply on the door.
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