NEW RELEASE and EXCERPT
The White Lady of Marsaxlokk
by Rosanne Dingli
Today we bring you an excerpt from Rosanne Dingli's brand new release, The White Lady of Marsaxlokk (pronounced MARSA-SHLOCK).
This is the fifth in our special feature on author Rosanne Dingli. For more books by this author, please check out our previous blog posts: Death in Malta (blog post), According to Luke (blog post), Camera Obscura (blog post), and The Hidden Auditorium (blog post).
A doctor returns to a dilapidated mansion after 25 years, seeking something he thinks he saw on his honeymoon. Obsessed about the house and its history, he has dreams of restoring it and starting a business.
Uncertain whether his deteriorating marriage will sustain such a plan, unsure whether a madcap scheme to start a guesthouse is even worth considering, he becomes as haunted as the locals say the house is. Memories, visions and dreams merge to present something inescapable; the story of a young woman whose life, whose possessions, could not be extinguished or destroyed by time or death.
Based on local anecdotes and landmarks, The White Lady of Marsaxlokk is a melancholic story of the melding of history into present day. It takes the reader on a captivating journey through time, on a feasible excursion that is both enchanting and just a little bit eerie.
‘Philip! You can’t go in there. It’s a ruin, I tell you.’
He walked alongside the limestone boundary, looking up at rusty iron railings in the wall. Before Meg could call out to him, Dr Philip Falzon reached up and vaulted the railings in one smooth movement. His raincoat caught on one of the ornate spearheads and he heard it rip, but nothing could stop him. The narrow front garden was weedy and slippery after the rain. He stayed on a path of loose flagstones that led round the side, where he found a doorway stacked with loose rubble, some of it flaking, some of it grey like iron.
It was easy; he kicked at the bottom of the wall of rubble and it collapsed instantly, making him leap backward and nearly twist his ankle. He took a deep breath and avoided falling boulders and fragments of stone block. ‘A way in.’ He talked to himself. With Meg out of sight and out of earshot, he could do that. He could explore. Five minutes was all he wanted. Five minutes. Five minutes to absorb the atmosphere of that place. It was starting to enthral him. He needed to do it. It felt so … it felt like no other place he had ever visited.
But then, he did not break into abandoned ruins very often. This did not feel like intrusion. It felt like rediscovery. Unsteady on his feet, he stepped over rubble, rubbish; the accumulation of decades of debris, fallen from above. His eyes travelled upward as he entered a cavernous room without a ceiling.
‘Oh god!’ His exclamation rebounded off grimy walls full of half-hearted graffiti, gouges, spatters of paint, and the inexorable water stains that rain had channelled downward, through the broken roof, over the years. Grey, green, black.
He had seen nothing like this in his twenty-nine years. He had worked hard, he graduated, class of 1976, and did his internship, and was poised to start general practice. This holiday with Meg was necessary, urgent. He was practically exhausted. Newly married, on the verge of a new life. Exhausted. In seven weeks, however, when he was rested, when he had recovered, he would launch a career – a successful one, if hard work had anything to do with it.
Moving forward, he came into a huge space, once an enormous stairwell. ‘Oh god!’ Philip raised a protective arm over his head in realization that the entire staircase had collapsed at some point, making it possible for him to gaze upward to the sky from the ground level of this three-storeyed house. Two arched apertures and a Cyclops window loomed high above his head on the right. The day’s last sun rays beamed in.
‘Oh – what a pity. What a shame.’ Words, words that came back at him, bounced off filthy walls. Dust, rubble, broken masonry and twisted metal rods and beams around him showed little evidence of glory or elegance, but he felt it was there once. ‘The curved stairs are gone.’
They were gone, but the stubs of stone treads – the remnants of what once was a truly glorious staircase – were still embedded in the wall, curving upward, the bowed shape clearly outlined. He could see stone and plaster fragments banked and clinging to each stair stub, and traces on the wall of a painted green pattern, artfully done to resemble a trellis; a dado leading upward. ‘The risers are gone, but parts of the treads are there. I wonder …’
He could see others had tried before him, to the height of about ten stairs. The eleventh tread was piled with debris that had never been trodden or pushed aside. It was narrow and dangerous. Philip heard Meg’s voice shout his name on the deserted road outside.
‘Oh, Meg!’ He mouthed exasperated words under his breath. She did not understand his feeling for this place. People said he was intuitive, an excellent doctor, with an instinctual bedside manner. He was spontaneous and fun to be with, his friends often said. But there was something deep inside him that had never been satisfied. Would climbing the remnants of those stairs give him part of what he sought, whatever it was?
Philip Falzon did not know. He did not understand what it was he sought, but he certainly had not found it yet. Meg’s voice faded. She would wait. She had to wait. His foot found a clear space on the first tread, and on the second and third. Upward, he went upward, ascending towards a void. The stairs, he could now see, had led to a wide landing underneath a pair of ornate arches, joined in the middle by a fluted stone orb. What a glorious place this must have been once.
Now, it was a dump, a ruin. Meg was right. So why did it make him feel so welcome, so at home? The higher he rose, the more cautious Philip became. He did not dare look down. The rubble and wreckage that lay on the floor underneath him was ample proof that downward was the only direction solid matter travelled in that space.
His feet found space beyond the eleventh stair. But it was clear no one had gone before him – not recently, in any case. Philip held his breath and climbed upward another nine treacherous treads, and came to a gap, fully three feet wide, in front of a platform composed of long limestone slabs, the remnants of wooden architraves and, dark brown with rust, some bent and twisted ancient metal beams. Rubble piled heavily everywhere. It was not a stable landing on a fine staircase any more. For some time, this had been a perilous perch, a full storey above ground level.
Philip waved away all thought of danger with his right hand. His left grasped a knob of stone that jutted out of the uneven wall. Deep audible breathing resounded in the cavernous space. ‘Oh god. How will I ever get down again?’ He dared not look down. The only way was forward, over that gap of empty space, underneath which several metres below, was certain death. ‘Oh god. I must be crazy.’ He did not dare think what his weight might do to the landing if he jumped over that opening and landed heavily.
He held his breath and leapt.
‘Oh.’ He made it. ‘Oh.’ Righting himself where he landed, not daring to move another muscle, Philip waited. His ankle protested again. Would the whole structure collapse, taking it with him to the floor below?
It held, but it was not a safe perch. Knowing there was little underneath to support him, Philip looked up. The wall to his left was unusually marked. This was not the staining and blooming of green mould and rainwater runnels he had seen downstairs. This was not the grey, green and black of neglect. He wished he had more light. Peering into the darkness, he took two unsteady steps to the left and saw what it was.
A mural. A tracery of fresco. Imagery of a trellised garden, cleverly drawn so the perspective gave the impression of distance, of depth. It was a wonderful garden, with arches of lattice bearing vines, some with blue blossom, others with white, fading into the distance where the landscape was golden. Church spires pierced the sky, which was a brilliant blue, studded with cotton-woolly clouds, and there, in the distance, a deep blue bay.
‘How lovely. How beautiful and …’ Among the foliage, further on, Philip glimpsed movement. A minute, momentous, breathtaking miniscule movement. Could it be? No. No. A spark of white light. He held his breath. It was cold up here, it was suddenly freezing, but he did not dare move, lest whatever moved two seconds before would stop. Or pounce. Or escape. Or frighten him out of his wits with some unexpected action.
‘Wait. Wait, wait. This is crazy.’
About the Author
Sought by an international audience for prize-winning short stories and intricate novels, Rosanne Dingli has published fiction successfully for over 25 years. Most of her body of work is available in paperback and ebook.
This author's fiction centres around the classical Arts, such as painting, music, and literature. She also uses locations and their allure to anchor her stories and give them substance. Folklore embellishes some of her works.
Rosanne is the author of a number of books, including The Hidden Auditorium, Camera Obscura, According to Luke, and her latest release, The White Lady of Marsaxlokk. She is now writing full-time after retiring from teaching in 2009. Her out-of-print short fiction and poetry is once more available in handy easy-to-read volumes that do not cost the earth. She gives occasional workshops on writing and publishing.
Enter the Goodreads giveaway for a chance to win a copy of The White Lady of Marsaxlokk by Rosanne Dingli (ends 8 May).