Written by Clare Azzopardi
Translated by Albert Gatt
Story from the book The Names they left Behind
The first key I ever left behind was the key to my diary. I left it on my desk at school, a green desk smeared with grease from sandwiches, where I usually kept my pencil or biro and which also had the letters pdm scratched onto its surface. I left it in full view, on purpose, so Paula Dawn Mangion would find it. I was in grade six at the time. This diary was where I wrote my most intimate secrets: about my love affairs with Mauro, Ezekiel, Jamie, Keith, depending on who I’d quarelled or made up with. It had a padlock attached, which could be opened or locked with this small red key.
Paula was a pretty girl. I wasn’t half as pretty as her, that was certain. To start with, her hair was straight and mine was curly; she didn’t wear glasses and I did; her face was unblemished whereas mine was covered in freckles – pigeon droppings, my nan called them. Jamie fancied her. Sometimes he and Paula would quarrel in the morning so he’d play with me during the short break but by the second break he’d have quarreled with me and gone back to playing with Paula.
I planned the whole thing carefully. I spent the whole week writing love letters from Jamie, addressed to me. I carefully copied his handwriting from an English homework handout that I’d stolen from him during break and whose disappearance earned him a punishment. Then I told Paula a story about some trouble I was having with my Maths – apart from being pretty, Paula was also good at sums. I was sure she’d ask me over to her place, because the flat she lived in was just one floor below ours. That’s exactly what happened. As soon as I arrived she showed me into her bedroom. I threw my schoolbag onto the bed and took out all my books. The diary was among them. Jamie’s letters were tucked inside. I purposely let half the books fall to the floor. The diary was one of them. I picked up my Maths book and my exercise book. I kicked the diary under the bed so that it was just visible, hoping that she’d find it when she was alone. As soon as we were done, I packed up all my things and left. I’d left my diary under the bed on purpose, with one corner protruding just a little. The next day, during the short break, when I was sure Paula Dawn wasn’t looking, I left the key in plain sight. And things turned out exactly as I thought they would. While I was playing, Paula came to leave me my diary on my desk. She saw the shiny little red key and curiosity got the better of her. She was with her best friend and my worst enemy, Sara, whose fingers too began to itch. So, key and diary in hand, they locked themselves away in the toilets. After break I found my locked diary on the desk as I’d expected. But the key wasn’t there. She and Jamie never made up again. As for me, sometimes they spoke to me and sometimes they didn’t, depending on their mood. Meanwhile, I tried smiling a little more than usual at Jamie, gave him the odd bit of chocolate, a new eraser, but I guess curls weren’t really his thing. I left the diary in a drawer in my desk and never opened it again, because no one ever left the key where I could find it.
I don’t know what it is about keys exactly, but whenever I spot one, my eyes go twitchy, my heart skips a beat, my legs go wobbly, my palms begin to sweat, my head turns from side to side and as soon as I’m sure that nobody’s looking, I snatch it and put it in my jeans pocket or in a handbag to use when the time is right.
Once, when I was in Form 4 and she was at University, my sister left a key behind in the bathroom; it opened this wooden jewellery box she had on her dressing table. Nobody else could ever open that box. And on that occasion, maybe because she’d quarrelled with Matthew on the phone and left the house in a huff, she’d left the key on the windowsill in the bathroom. By mistake. I don’t know what I expected to find in that box. I remember squeezing my eyes shut, turning the key as slowly as I could, listening to the little creak it made, lifting the lid with my eyes still shut and imagining myself climbing inside it and discovering a whole new world, like Lucy had when she climbed into Professor Kirke’s wardrobe. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as cheated as I did when, having opened my older sister’s secret box, I discovered that it was stuffed with condoms. I slammed the lid shut in anger, locked the box, went into the kitchen and left the key on the dining table so that when mum got back she’d see it and be intrigued. That way, she too would get to know the secrets her daughter kept locked away in the box. Then I sat myself down in front of the television waiting for mum to get home. And things turned out exactly as I thought they would. Mum put her things down on the table and put the kettle on. She began to put her things away when the key materialised before her eyes. I’m quite sure that this is what she did: glanced at me to see if I was looking her way – I wasn’t – snatched it up quickly with her right hand and stuffed it in the pocket of her sweatshirt. Then she stood up and moved towards the corridor, Make me a cuppa when it boils hon, I’m just going to the loo. That evening my sister got a serious tongue-lashing and mum didn’t let her go to Paceville for a whole month.
One time, during my sixth form days, I left my locker key lying about in full view, so Gareth would find it. By then I was very familiar with the feeling someone gets when they find a key that’s been left lying about on a table or on the floor, or anywhere really, and they know exactly who it belongs to. There’s always that initial flurry followed by a slight nod; the eyes go beady and they swivel quickly from side to side to check if anyone else is around; then there’s that slight, discomposing thrum, a scrupulous lump begins to rise in the throat and a shiver of excitement stills the heart’s incipient thump at the prospect of someone twigging. Finally there’s the decision to make a grab for it. We’d dated for a month and after a month I caught him with Karla and when I told him I’d seen him with her he denied everything and lied and said I was the only one he wanted. The next time I saw him undoing the buttons on her shirt, exposing her breast and tonguing it like an ice cream cone, I sent him a note and threatened him with the pictures I’d taken of them and said that I would shame her publicly. Then, I left my locker key where he could find it. I’m not sure what went through his head. Maybe he thought the pictures were in there, maybe he thought he’d find something of mine that he could use to blackmail me. Who knows? He decided to try his luck; now that he’d happened on the key, it was worth taking a peek. As soon as he opened the locker five hundred tampons tumbled out on top of him. I showed up at that point, bursting with laughter and holding the pictures of Karla half-undressed. This what you were looking for, by any chance? Better put the Tampax back if you don’t want Karla’s tits plastered all over the noticeboard. During my first couple of years at University I didn’t leave any keys lying about for anyone to find. But then I met Simon in my third year and he was into pill-popping and pushing and I got intoxicated with excitement when he once asked me to hide a chunk of weed in my gym locker and leave the key next to the rubbish skips in the small carpark. I’d never been into drugs and I’ve never touched the stuff but hiding drugs in my locker, leaving the key somewhere for someone and then retrieving it from the same spot half an hour later, that was a different story. I was in. For the next six months I hid chunks of weed and bags of ecstasy pills in my locker and left my key next to a skip or a bin or a noticeboard or a coffee machine. The rules were simple: I’d make off as soon as I’d planted the key without waiting around to see who come to pick it up. Then I’d go back for it half an hour or an hour later, depending on the agreement, and I would invariably find it there, without a clue as to who might have left it. Until the day I decided to do my own thing. I hid behind a bench to discover a bit more. And I got caught. Right away. I’ve no idea how they managed to see me. All I know is they never trusted me again after that. The guy who picked up the key certainly didn’t see me and I know for certain that he was the one who put it back in its place. He never saw me, I swear to God. But it seems that somebody else was spying on me and I hadn’t realised. I remember how Simon left me the following week and how that day I wept tears that were swaddled in fear, the fear that accumulates over months when you’re doing things you never thought yourself capable of.
When I started working for Rocco and Co. and met Stefan, I embarked on a new adventure. He was the salesman and I was the accountant. It all started as a game. The boss had gone abroad for a week and whenever that happened, I was the one responsible for all the keys. In the showroom at the time we had about four Toyotas, three Hyundais and six Fords. But there was also this red BMW 316 and a Mercedes-Benz E Class. I’d never taken a spin in either of those. I wasn’t the one who took clients out on trial runs. I just managed the accounts and when the boss went to London to buy more secondhand cars, I also took care of the keys. It was St Valentine’s Day. He was single and so was I. No clients to speak of. Cold and rainy weather. I asked him if he wanted a coffee before closing and he said yes. As we drank our coffee he asked me if I wanted to get a take-away pizza and I said no, but I had a better idea. I went over to where the keys were kept, took the ones to the Mercedes and dropped them on the table in front of him. Then I picked up my handbag from the chair and walked towards the Mercedes. He didn’t follow me right away. He wasn’t intrigued. He wasn’t disconcerted. He didn’t get that tingling feeling, that shudder you get when an ice cube makes its way down your spine. But after waiting for a minute or two next to the car, my arse against the passenger door, I saw him come out of the kitchenette and he asked me whether I was just taking the piss. Can you drive or can’t you? He didn’t say another word. He got in the car and eased it out of the garage. He shut the garage door and we made off. That night, with the smell of new seat covers in the Merc and the sound of rain slamming against the windscreen, was probably the best night of sex I’ve had in my life. The tip of his tongue lost its way in the most sensitive regions of my body. I didn’t want him to stop. I wanted to come, but gradually, really gradually. And then he was inside me and his lips were tugging at my breast and I came a second time. We carried on with this business for a while. Sometimes we took the BMW, sometimes an Alpha Romeo, sometimes a Nissan; we always took them back and we always drove carefully. He was always the one to drive and I was nearly always the one on top except for when his head was buried between my thighs. It became something of a habit, we even stopped waiting for the boss to go abroad. I began to leave the keys in his jacket pocket even when the boss was around. One day, when the car we’d taken out of the showroom stopped at the lights in Msida next to the boss’s and I turned my head to peek at the driver of the car alongside ours and he did likewise and peeked at the passenger in the car alongside his, Stefan nearly pissed himself and I very nearly burst out laughing, but I kept my cool, I didn’t want to appear hysterical. It was no use explaining to the boss the next day that we’d never left so much as a scratch on any of the cars; he fired us both and we left the showroom hand in hand. We got married a year later and invited Rocco to the wedding, but he didnt’t turn up.
It was our little girl that I missed the most. Actually she was the only one I missed and it still chafes a little, I think. I certainly didn’t miss life with Stefan, which had become monotonous: I was the one doing all the talking, choosing where to go on holiday, picking the movie to watch, thinking of something different to cook, inviting our friends over. The only thing he’d ever really wanted was to become a father. And when I put Bertha in his arms, I realised I’d never wanted to become a mother. I kept on working and he went on leave. He brought her up and she became the centre of his world. Meanwhile, I just got on with my work, which had become more more demanding and began to involve a lot of travel and important meetings with attractive and intriguing men.
Once, during a company meeting I attended in Rome, I met Tullio. We spent three days discussing big projects and new ideas that would allow the company to expand and open new branches in different places. The last night we spent in the Campo De’ Fiori hotel, I decided to leave him a little note with my address and next to that, a key. My taxi arrived while Tullio was still asleep. And I left Rome hoping that one day he’d come looking for me.
Three months later we were drinking coffee in the living room at my place. He never told me he was coming. I’d never told him that I was married, that I had a daughter. The key had caught his imagination and he’d come at the first opportunity. It was a Saturday and I was at home working on my computer. Stefan had taken the little one out for a ride in the car. I wasn’t too surprised initially when I heard the key in the door. I thought it was Stefan. But then I heard an unfamiliar voice and it gave me a fright. I got to my feet and went to see who it was. As soon as I saw him I felt that same fluster that overcomes one in the act of leaving behind a key for someone else to find. Tullio. Key in hand, door ajar. I asked him into the living room and we drank our coffee with my knee touching his, his hand occasionally coming to rest on my lap, my hand occasionally carressing his face.
For a while I did my best to get Stefan to understand the situation. It’s difficult to understand when you lack imagination. So Stefan never understood why I’d cheated on him four times and why the sex was so much better and why sex with him was like spinning a rusty wheel.
On the day I shut the front door behind me for the last time, there was nobody else in the house. Stefan had taken the little one for a ride in the car and told me I had to pack up and leave before he got back. The little one shouldn’t have to witness my departure. No point making a scene or shedding a lot of tears; it was better that way for everyone. So I did as I was told. I left a note on the dining table with my new address and a key with a cat keychain, a clear sign that this was meant for Bertha since Stefan was allergic to cats and Bertha had never owned a cat because of her father. I thought she’d understand one day. But it seems that Bertha never understood because the key I left on that table – it’s going on ten years now – has never piqued her curiosity to find out where I live, open the door of my flat in St Julians, look at my new furniture, the clothes I recently bought from eBay, the books, the CDs, the fridge stocked up with desserts, the scented towels and the 42’’ television. Unless it was her father who hid it away the day I left and never gave it to her. If that is what happened, then there might still be hope, that one day she’ll find it and feel a flush rising to her cheeks and a tremor in her fingers, followed by that sudden, impatient eagerness to find out which door can be unlocked by that key.
Yesterday I gave the key to Mark while he was having a drink at Café Olè, where I hang out sometimes on Saturday nights. We chatted for a long time and told each other uncomfortable stories from our childhood. He still hasn’t got over his wife leaving him for a man ten years his junior. Before I left I gave him a little piece of paper with the address of my flat and the key. I said he could come looking for me whenever he liked and to leave me a note if he turned up and I happened to be out. Then I left. I thought he’d follow me, call me a lunatic, throw the key in my face and leave in a huff. But he didn’t. I think I’ve got a knack for picking them out right away, the men who won’t be put off by a key belonging to a woman they barely know. It was eleven when I got home. I turned on the television and put the kettle on for tea. I’d barely had a gulp when I heard the key in the door. Not Mark, surely? Sandra, you there? No, it wasn’t Mark. Sandra, may I come in? Sure, John, come right in, darling. He was dying for a bit of rough and barely gave me time to finish my tea. The sofa isn’t the most comfortable place for that kind of savage tumble. We should’ve used the carpet. But he didn’t even give me time to ask. And I let him get inside me without noticing that he hadn’t even bothered to pull my socks off, something I always find really irritating.
That’s the mood I was in yesterday. When we were done I heated up my tea in the microwave and poured him a glass of port. Then we did it again, in bed, same sort of thing, he didn’t want to try anything else. The same way exactly. Me, I like a bit of change. A bit of creativity, a bit of tenderness after the rough. As soon as we were done he promptly fell asleep and I heard the clock strike three and then I heard nothing more.
John’s not the same person anymore. Back when he still had his wife, when his eyes would glaze over with guilt, then he turned me on. These days, I don’t get that anymore. He’s become too self-assured. His passion has an arrogance about it, the cold arrogance of a loser. And that bothers me. I left him a key about eight months ago, when we met in the cafeteria close to where I work and he’d came across as a decent chap. It wasn’t long since he’d broken up with his wife. I liked him more then, with that air of vulnerability he had. He was still in the process of discovering my body, like a little boy discovering his PlayStation.
He’s still asleep and I’m going to take the key to my flat from his wallet and exchange it with an identical one that won’t fit into any door. The next time he comes over and tries to get in he won’t be able to and I’ll just stay put, I won’t open the door for him. He’ll think that I’ve replaced the lock and that I don’t want to see him anymore and then he’ll think that I gave the key to the new lock to someone new and I hope he’ll come to the conclusion that he needs to look for another key, one belonging to someone else.
Meanwhile, I’m sipping my coffee and thinking of Mark. I’ve got a feeling he’ll come over tonight.