The Cup Bearer
Nothing happened and he glanced round at Don. The man made a knocking motion with his hand and Emilio knocked again. Almost immediately, the door swung open and Emilio found himself staring at a young version of his mother. She wore a frilled Spanish skirt and red dance shoes, and her hair was piled up on top and pinned with a mantilla comb. Little Maria? My little playmate; How could I have forgotten her? "Hi Maria."
The girl shrieked with delight and rushed forward. "Emmie!" She flung her arms round his neck and almost overbalanced him. Before he could recover, she dragged him forward and into the flat where the rest of the family crowded round to greet him and look him over. His mother kissed him and introduced the others; Perquita gave him a peck on the cheek but Jose stared solemnly at him, hinting of future antagonism. He was the same height as Emilio but he was Guido all over again; a bully in the making. Ramon looked him up and down and started giggling. "You're my big brother? You look more like a girl with all that hair."
His mother nudged him. "Ramon, shush! ¿Dónde están tus maneras? "
Emilio bit back a cutting remark. "That's all right, I'm used to it."
He glanced to where Thomas and Gillian sat at a large table in the middle of the cramped lounge. Now what is she doing here? She smiled as she shuffled a deck of strange looking cards. "Come and try this Uno game, Emilio. I think I'm getting addicted to it."
Thomas looked quite at home without his business suit, with the sleeves of a thick sweater pushed up his arms. The man nodded to him and Emilio took out the first of the objects in the bag, a small nugget of coal. There was an open fire to his left and he walked over to it. "According to your New Year custom, I bring you coal that you may never be cold." He leaned down and placed the nugget on the fire. He gave Perquita a drum of salt from the bag. "I bring you salt that the essence of life will never leave you." Next, he pulled some dinner cobs, scrounged from the hotel, and handed them to the younger children. "I ring you bread that you may never go hungry, and money that your bills will always be paid." This last gift was an addition Emilio himself had decided upon as a surprise for Rita, and he was rewarded by the startled but happy look on her face as he handed ten crisp new ten pound notes. "A Happy New Year to you all."
While the family clapped and tried to talk to him all at once, Thomas poured him a glass of wine and lemonade. He took a few sips of it then the boys insisted on taking him on a tour of the flat. It boasted two small bedrooms where the older children slept, while Rita and the little one slept on the sofa bed in the lounge. Thomas had already given Emilio an outline of their circumstances, and the run down state of the flat. Ten minutes was all it took him to note the serious condensation problem in the kitchen, and the dry rot in a corner of the girl's bedroom floor. He also noted the patches of plaster threatening to fall from the lounge ceiling. Then Don arrived with the next gift, and the cramped flat became even more overcrowded.
"Where did you get roses and carnations at this time of year?" Rita gasped as Emilio handed her the huge bouquet. "They're beautiful; thank you so much.
Emilio shrugged his shoulders. "It's a case of knowing people who know a thing or two." Rita read the gift card and smiled her thanks then kissed him on the cheek.
Emilio exchanged glances with Thomas then he looked round the room. "I've just realised, there is someone missing."
"You mean Lucia?" Rita pointed to the sofa bed under the window and what Emilio had thought was a large, lumpy cushion. Emilio went to the sofa and leaned down to lift a corner of a cover. Beneath it, a little cherub lay curled up small and in a deep sleep, her tiny hands bunched into sturdy fists. Like brother like sister. We can sleep through a thunderstorm. With a sigh, he straightened up and faced the family. "I've decided. I'm not staying here. I can't."
"Can't?" At least the females of the family seemed disappointed.
"I can't, and neither can you." He turned to Thomas and saw his questioning look.
"Plan 'C' I think." Rita's face lit up and Emilio knew he'd just broken his most important vow. Never get too close; r ound two to the Brothers Grafton.
Rita stood in the red tiled hallway, listening to Jose and Ramon shouting to each other on the floor above. She gazed in awe at the dark oak stairs and the high ceiling. Gillian Achres walked up to her. "Well? What do you think?"
"It's…. well it's …big!" To Rita, the house seemed massive after the confines of the tiny flat.
Emilio stood watching her from the doorway of the front room on her right. "It's not that big." He pointed into the room. "Come and look at this." He disappeared and Rita heard the sound of his footsteps on bare floorboards. She looked again at the inventory in her hands. Victorian red brick, double fronted, with tiled hallway, and ground floor toilet. Two front lounges, two back living rooms, and kitchen; basement area with gas combination boiler; four first floor bedrooms and a bathroom. Three attics, and gardens to the front, side and rear. Gas Central heating. To be sold with all furniture and furnishings. She shook her head in amazement. Rita Gomez, this is a palace. .
"Coming." Folding the inventory, she preceded Gillian through the doorway and found herself in room devoid of anything except for a six-foot high mirror fixed to the inner wall opposite the window and spanning almost the width of the room. Emilio stamped on the pine flooring. "You know what this is? It's a sprung floor. I'll bet the old lady who owned this was a dance teacher." He turned to Gillian. "How did you know about this place?"
"Wheels within wheels; as I said, I have friends in the area. There are three more properties to look at but, being New Year's Day I doubt we can see them today."
Emilio shook his head. "There's no need. As soon as you showed us the photo of this place, I knew this was the right one." He turned to look at Rita and smiled. "I wonder how I knew?" Something like an electric charge passed though her. Did he know, or was he just guessing?
Gillian coughed politely. "I think I'll go and check whether Thomas and Don have found the boiler yet. I've brought teabags, milk and sugar with me. If the water's turned on I'll make us a cup a tea. There should be a kettle somewhere in the kitchen."
Rita waited till the woman had left the room, and then said, "You're more gypsy than you think." Emilio's mouth dropped open and Rita nodded. "My parents are Irish gypsies too."
"Wow!" Emilio shook his head in wonder. "Now that explains a lot of things."
"Thomas thought you had a fit of some kind, just before he took you back to the hotel. You just went blank on us and stared at the fire, then you just came back just like switching a light on. You seemed not to breathe. Did you see anything?"
"I..." Emilio looked disturbed as he gazed round the room. "I saw this place. There's a big front attic upstairs; I guess that'll be my den. How did you know?"
Rita walked up to him and placed a hand on his arm. "I have them too, now and then. Perquita knows, but the kids get upset because they think I'm having an attack. I know when something is going to happen and I try to shut myself in one of the bedrooms till it passes. I knew you were alive before Mr. Clooney came to see me. Your trances will be stronger than mine, of course."
"I had two miscarriages before I had Perquita and another three before I had you."
"You're full of surprises, aren't you? First you tell me about my real dad, now you tell me I'm a...I'm a..."
"A seventh child? Yes. But that isn't all. Your father was a seventh child, and so was his father."
"What if I don't believe all that stuff; ESP and all that?"
"I don't believe in anything except myself."
Rita had the feeling he was mentally backing away from her. She watched the return of the stranger who had knocked on the door of the hotel bedroom twenty-four hours ago, and was determined not to lose him a second time. "Come on, let's go and look at the rest of the house. Isn't it lucky Gillian managed to have the gas and electric reconnected before the holiday?"
"I don't believe in luck either." Emilio marched out of the room ahead of her. In the hallway, they met Thomas and Don coming up from the cellar where the central heating boiler now produced a faint rumble beneath their feet.
"Hey, Mr Grafton, sir, how long have you and Ms. Achres been sitting on this place? The end of November was it? Things sure happen fast around here." He switched his focus to Gillian who had popped her head out of the opposite lounge. "I guess the owners are friends of yours too, huh? You think I'm stupid or something?"
Gillian looked stunned. "I beg your pardon?"
Shocked at Emilio's rudeness, Rita tapped her son on the arm then she saw the wicked twinkle in his eyes. He wagged a finger at Thomas. "The Brother's Grafton win again."
"You mean we're going to take it?" Rita asked.
"If I get some answers," her son stared directly at Gillian.
Gillian came out into the hall. "Actually, the late owner was a family friend, and she ran a private dance academy. I heard she had died recently and contacted her son. He's willing to rent the place if you don't want to buy it. I told Thomas about it and we arranged for you to view it."
"And the amenities being conveniently switched on?"
"If you want to sell a place like this it, has to be in tip-top condition; especially these old houses that don't sell well. The builders have been in and out over the last few weeks so it made sense to have the facilities switched on."
Gazing up at Emilio, Rita sensed he and Gillian weren't on the best of friendly terms. He doesn't trust her for some reason. Come to think of it, neither do I; she's too smooth.
"Hey, kid," Don spoke for the first time, "even if you don't want to live here, it'll be great for the kids. It's a lot closer to school for Maria and Jose, and there's a school just right for Ramon down the street. The shops are just round the corner on the high street and Trentham is only ten miles away from Altrincham Ice Rink. Trentham also has its own school of dancing."
At that moment, Jose and Ramon decided to bounce down the stairs. "We don't like it," Ramon stated. "It's full of old stuff."
"And it smells," Jose added.
Before Rita could scold them, Emilio moved towards them. "Excuse me, boys, it's time we had a talk." He pointed towards the kitchen. "Outside, now!"
The boys looked at Rita, but she glared at them, and they shuffled towards the kitchen in front of Emilio. As the three brothers disappeared from view, Rita burst into laughter. At last she had so meone who could help Perquita control those two rascals.
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