ONE

He started his walk around the perimeter of the ancient city he lived in every evening at precisely 6pm., after 7pm in the heat of summer. He knew his walk would take him 56 minutes from the moment he left his small, tidy stone house until he returned and re-entered his bright blue front door. He knew his walk included stepping up 188 steps and stepping down 157 steps during the circuit.

 He did it for reasons of health, vanity and remorse.

To stop his small paunch developing into a big one. And so he could enjoy his nightly pint of beer without guilt. He kept a close eye on his weight and weighed himself while naked twice a day, just before he took his morning shower and just before his evening one. Every day. He knew the exact weight, right down to the half-kilo, when his belly would first appear to push out from under his tee-shirt while he stood in a normal stance. From time to time he grew heavier to reach that weight. By slow increments. When that point was reached, he compensated by eating less. Maybe an apple for lunch and nothing more. And skip his beer for a couple of evenings until he returned to the tee-shirt comfort zone. This would result in great satisfaction, especially when he wore tee-shirts. He did not feel as though he was obsessive, just very observant. And self-disciplined. He also liked to be on top of things. In control. Sometimes that combination did not work well.

“What do you think about while you walk?” she asked. Her eyes were smiling and she was genuinely interested.

“Oh, lots of things”, he replied. “What happened that day, what I did yesterday, what I will do tomorrow…back home…something…nothing. Something I see might remind me of a place or someone in the past. An idea for a short story. Sometimes I think about you. Or me. Often, I look at people and speculate about them. I look at couples and analyse them. See that couple there, holding hands? She is happy in the relationship but he isn’t sure.”

“Oh, come on. How do you know that?”

“Well, she is looking straight ahead and her eyes are smiling slightly, while he is looking down at the ground. Dead giveaway. See that other couple over there? They appear happy but it won’t last.

“Okay, I’ll play along. And how do you work that out?”

“They are both engaging with each other in a playful way but it’s frivolous and superficial. And neither know what to expect from the other, next. There are thoughtful pauses, downtime, before they act up again. They are still feeling each other out and hesitant at being honest. If they carry on like that too long, it will become their paradigm and it will be too late to connect in a meaningful way. Can’t last.”

“You think you can tell all that by just looking at them?”

“Yep. It’s just a matter of close observation and paying attention to small details. And interpreting it all through the prism of experience. And you know what the best experience is?”

“What?”

“Failure. Everyone knows you learn a lot more from failure than anything else. I’ve learnt a lot over the years.”

“Alright Sigmund Freud, what’s happening with those two?”

“Oh, they seem okay. Of course, you can tell their best is behind them. But they have a comfortable ease about them. Bit bland, not so much happy as contented.”

“You make it sound horrible.”

“No. Not at all. It’s the best a long-term relationship could wish for, really.”

“What, bland?”

“Contented.”

“And you think they can’t be contented and happy?”

“Well, I suppose so. But only for short periods, it’s much more likely to be one or the other. You see, happiness requires intensity and intensity is incompatible with contentedness.”

“You don’t have to be intensely happy in a relationship every minute of every day, you know”.

“I know. You can’t. No one can.”

“So, what’s your solution?”

“That’s just it. There isn’t one.” His face tilted downwards towards the ground.

There was a minute’s silence.

“I suppose it’s over, then.”

“Sorry.”

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London Falling

“There you go, love. Finished. Those uneven edges will grow out”. She smiled at me sitting in the chair, then turned and smirked at the group of black ladies seated behind her.

I had just had the worst haircut in all of my life, at the hands of a large woman of West Indian descent. In my naivety, I had wandered into a black peoples’ hair dressing salon in what was then the cheap rent suburb of Kensington, London, where I was living at the time. The hairdresser was obviously not experienced with anything but negro hair types. Or perhaps she was not a qualified hairdresser at all and it was not a licensed salon.

I paid the woman who had just mutilated my hair and left the shop to the accompaniment of female giggles that steadily grew in volume as I walked towards the door. By the time I stood outside the shop the giggles had turned to laughter.

I walked along the streets of Kensington with my horrendous haircut. As I ambled along, the sound of Reggae music regularly wafted from the open windows of tenement buildings I passed until I reached the familiar townhouse that was a convenient and friendly dormitory for travelling Australians. From the window of that house came the keyboard synthesiser sound of the first solo album by music virtuoso and ex-member of the famous British band, “Traffic”, Steve Winwood.

I was living there with a girlfriend and we were sharing a first floor bedroom with another couple in a house that had a constant stream of itinerant Australian backpackers coming and going. Each of the two couples slept on two single beds that were side by side within the bedroom and each couple took turns at sleeping in the living room downstairs to give the other couple privacy. The arrangement worked well most of the time. The only things that became annoying was the fact that the other couple smoked cigarettes in the bedroom and that they were in the habit of repeatedly playing Steve Winwood’s 1980 LP, “Arc of a Diver”, on the record player in the living room, directly below. “Arc of a Diver” regularly appears on “the best of British albums” lists. It is an iconic record. But listening to any record multiple times a day becomes tedious. Every time I heard the first three distinctive, electronic synthesiser notes that heralded the first track of the album, “While You See a Chance, Take It”, my eyes would roll and a voice in my brain entreated:

Oh, please no, not again.

Earlier in the day, I had stepped out of the house for a haircut as I had just landed a bar job at the prestigious Cafe Royal, Piccadilly Circus. Prerequisites to taking up the job were to shave off my beard and cut my long hair, short. My girlfriend already worked in a different section of the Cafe Royal and had lined me up with the job interview. She was not impressed with my new hair style.

“Oh, my God. Who cut your hair…London Council?”

I was on the archetypal Aussie backpacking tour of Europe and I had decided to stay a while in one of the greatest cities of the world. London to a young, untravelled Australian boy from the western suburbs of Sydney was fabulous. Working behind a bar and living in that dynamic city was incredibly stimulating. Interesting people came into the bar and chatted every day and at night there were outstanding concerts by international musicians and high-quality live theatre with famous actors. Shows in places like the Hammersmith Odeon with the likes of Ry Cooder, Joe Jackson and The Steve Miller Band, and plays in the West End like “Another Country”, starring Rupert Everett at Queen’s Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, the original production of “Cats” by Andrew Lloyd Webber and the comedy “Steaming”, where all the actresses performed nude, at the Comedy Theatre in Haymarket, loom large in memory.

The Cafe Royal was a large and historic, high-status establishment within sight of the Eros Statue and a few minutes’ walk from Piccadilly Circus railway station, the Tube stop I would alight at on my daily commute to work. The restaurant/convention rooms/bar complex was famous for visits from royalty, media personalities and other celebrities. I didn’t work in the most salubrious part of the Cafe Royal, but in the public bar around the back which had an entrance of its own. There, I was a barman and sometimes waiter working under a handsome, flamboyant West Indian bar manager called Alf (“I’ve slept with women from almost every country in the world”) and a middle-aged Spanish barman who went by the name of Pepe. It wasn’t too long before I understood the significance of the boast made by my Jamaican supervisor. There were many single women from all over the world in London and a lot of them came to Piccadilly Circus. Many women were not averse to flirting with barmen who had “cute” accents. I often thought at the time that if all the Australians, Irish and New Zealanders left London, the bars would be bereft of bar and restaurant staff. My girlfriend who worked in the high-class restaurant across from the public bar was amazed at the copious womanising and the high level of success of her boss with women who strayed in from the street outside. It seemed as though many a public establishment in inner London was a lucrative pick-up prospect for their male employees.

Gerry Rafferty immortalised one inner-city London womaniser, the doorman at a Chinese restaurant famous for being frequented by celebrities, in his 1977 song, “Baker Street”.

I quickly realised that the pay I was receiving at the Cafe Royal represented only a small fraction of what I would have earned in Australia for the same work, considering penalty rates of pay and other such unheard-of benefits in England, but I was having the time of my life.

The working conditions and customs in London bars were also strange to someone from Australia.  For one thing, customers would sometimes order themselves a beer and add a comment like: “and have one for yourself”. On such occasions, I was allowed to accept the offer of a drink but after taking their money and pouring myself a beer, I had to take it into the backroom and drink it alone rather than share the experience with the generous patron. I always felt rude leaving someone alone at the bar who had just bought me a drink. Also, the bars opened at 10am but at mid-afternoon, they shut for a few hours that were unpaid and which had to be spent amusing yourself, before you reported back to work again for the rest of the night. I was told that it was due to an ancient law aimed at getting workers back to work after their lunch break and that the law was an anachronism, but for some reason it had not been repealed by Parliament. It meant long days from 10am to 10pm with hours of useless idleness in-between but the compensating factor was that you worked four days on and then had the following three days off in a row. This meant great sightseeing and short excursion opportunities to places like Bath and Oxford. I would often go off on these sojourns alone, to the disappointment of my girlfriend.

Lucy was a very sweet, quietly spoken girl from Randwick, Sydney. She was educated at an exclusive Sydney girls’ school and came from a wealthy family with fascinating historical connections to the events commonly referred to as “the Mutiny on the Bounty”. Her surname was Christian. Lucy was intelligent, mature and sensitive. She was also pretty and had an attractive, slim figure.

I had broken up with my first big love, a romance of several years, just a few weeks before starting to go out with Lucy and was determined not to get involved in a serious relationship, again. After living with Lucy at Kensington for a month or two, I started seeing a girl from the Seychelle Islands who also worked at the Cafe Royal. Marie-Alice (“all the girls in the Seychelles have two first names”) was very exotic and although she had lived in London for most of her life, had never visited the city’s art galleries, live theatres or other iconic attractions. It was entertaining and gratifying to show her around her own hometown. Marie-Alice was very kind to me and later inspired a song.

I thought it best to tell Lucy what was going on and break-up with her. That of course made things awkward back at the house where we both still lived. I thought that all of us in the household could be adult about the situation. In reality, I was being a spoilt child and expecting everyone else to be adult.

After almost three months in London, the final day of work at the Café Royal arrived. I was leaving England the next day. It was to be the last leg of my European trip with an imminent return to Malta for two weeks, then on to Rome to catch the return plane journey back to Australia and an uncertain future. Things had not been pleasant back at the house. On that penultimate morning in London, I overheard Lucy talking to her girlfriend/flatmate about me and the conversation was not complementary. I descended into a dark mood and left for the notoriously boring Sunday shift- my last one- at the Cafe Royal public bar.

At work, my mood deteriorated further when I learnt that my final pay was not yet calculated and I would not be able to pick up the wages that were owed to me at the end of my shift. I could see what was going to happen. My suspicions were later proved correct and I never did receive my last few days’ pay. Thanks Alf.

It was a Sunday and typically uneventful. I was manning the bar alone and on Sundays we closed early, not reopening after the afternoon shutdown. Furthermore, Sundays were always very quiet, with hardly any customers at all to serve. The half day would often pass by excruciatingly slowly with just a handful of customers entering the bar to break the monotony.

I got to thinking of how to make my last day at work a memorable one and wondered how I might ameliorate my unpleasant feelings of being taken advantage of and cheated out of my wages.

Working behind the bar of the Cafe Royal for the last time, I decided that this day was going to be the day that I tried every brand of scotch whisky that was on display; starting with the exclusive top shelf varieties and working my way down- literally. I started with the more expensive brands of whisky: Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Chivas Regal. There must have been at least a dozen brands and I tried them all. Needless to say, by closing time I was feeling jolly but I was not in a competent state.

It was an unusually hot and sultry summer’s day in London on that Sunday. I discovered this immediately I walked out of the air conditioned bar into the street. The unexpected heat hit me like a slap in the face. As if to make things worse, the top button of my trousers had popped off and I needed to hold up my pants with one hand to stop them from falling down below my groin. I decided that I was in no fit state to travel home immediately, so I decided to walk the short distance to St. James Park and have an afternoon nap. By this time, I was a little unsteady on my feet. I noticed through eyes that were half closed due to the sun’s glare that some people were staring at me as I, while holding up my trousers with one hand, stumbled along an unnecessarily long and circuitous route down Regent street, towards St. James.

I found a few quiet square metres of grass in the busy park and attempted to sleep it off. By the time I awoke I was still a little tipsy and it was dusk. I still did not feel like going back to my unhappy home so instead of going down to the Tube station to catch a train, I decided to prolong my splendid isolation and walk back to Kensington. The expedition took some time and as I approached Kensington Gardens it became dark. I kept walking.

All of a sudden, I became aware of loud music, laughter and animated conversation that sounded like an enormous party. I walked past a townhouse that had its front window wide open and saw a large crowd of revellers inside. It looked like fun and I really had nowhere better to go so I decided to crash the party. I knocked on the door and a young woman appeared in the half-opened doorway. The noise of the partying made it difficult to communicate:

“Hi, my friend… Jenny… is in there and she said that it would be ok to come over.”

“What? What did you say?”

“My friend. She’s in there. She said to come over.”

“Who? Oh, don’t worry. Ok. Come in.” 

Once inside the house, I headed for a table in the middle of the dining room that was littered with various bottles of wine and other liquor. Most bottles were open and it appeared to be a self-serve, community bar. I started drinking again. My blood alcohol level must have still been high from the whisky as it didn’t take long to once again feel very drunk. I found myself sitting on a lounge and blabbering semi-coherently to the young woman who let me in along with her female companion of around the same age. The three of us seemed to be getting on very well. At least I believed we were. I was feeling confident and out to impress so I explained how clever I was in tricking my way into the party. The girls laughed, then looked at each other and smirked. It transpired that it was their party and their residence.

I suspect that the young women I had been talking to were so enamoured with my story and found my funny little anecdote so intriguing that they repeated it to their friends because the next time I approached the liquor table, two large young men who looked very much like rugby players, cast me disparaging looks of disdain. They began muttering to each other while nodding their heads in my direction. I decided that I had probably had enough to drink and that I had better get back home to Kensington. I squeezed my way through the crowd of partygoers and out the front door into the street. I recommenced my journey home.

I arrived at the house in Kensington sometime later but I knew that I was still too drunk to go to bed. I dreaded that “spinning room” feeling and the inevitable result of being sick from it, so I kept walking around the block to clear my head and sober up. By this time, it was the not so early hours of the morning.

On one of my numerous circuits around the block, as I approached the house, I felt a hand placed on my shoulder and looked around to see who it was. It was Lucy. She had heard my heavy, drunken footsteps on the pavement outside, then seen me relentlessly walking past the house from the bedroom window. She had got out of bed and come down to the street in the pitch-black darkness because she was worried about me and wanted to help, even after all that I had put her through. She was a kind and caring soul.

The next morning, I folded my clothes and stuffed them into my backpack along with my other belongings. I was happy to be on my way, full of a sense of adventure and anticipating the next stage of my European odyssey, but I noticed a sadness in Lucy. I said my goodbyes and walked out the front door into the street. As I walked sprightly along, loaded up with my backpack, I felt a strong sense that Lucy was watching me from the bedroom window stride down the road towards the Tube station and out of her life.

***

Over the years and since returning to Australia from that time in London, I occasionally heard the Steve Winwood album track, “While you See a Chance, Take It “, on the radio. Listening to it always brought back memories of London, Lucy and the house in Kensington. The tedium I had associated with the song softened over time and I grew to enjoy listening to it, even though the song invariably brought back mixed feelings of happy memories tinged with remorse and guilt. One day in a Sydney second-hand store I found the vinyl LP, “Arc of a Diver”, in a bargain bin. I sometimes play that record when I am at home alone in the evening while sipping on a glass of red wine; maybe once or twice a year. The first track of the album always allows me to effortlessly drift off to London in my mind.

Music and Auld Lang Syne

After four obstinate years of accepting that my LP record turntable was dead as a doornail, I suddenly felt the urge to try and bring it to life once more after setting up my stereo all over again in the old house. And then…serendipity.

I am still not sure exactly what I did to make the turntable start working again. It was the usual male response to anything that doesn’t work: unmitigated blind and uninformed meddling. I fiddled with the stylus and changed some settings on the amplifier which managed to get sound from the headphones. I changed some more settings on the amplifier and suddenly there was a distorted sound coming from the speakers. Fiddled with the stylus some more and… success. I had earlier purchased the new stylus online, off the internet, and had assumed that it was a dud or that I had made a mistake and ordered the wrong model. For some inexplicable reason, or perhaps from pig-headed arrogance, I simply ignored my old record collection, only played CD’s on my stereo and did not try the turntable again for all of those years.

Words simply cannot express the joy felt from listening to some of the old records again. Sipping a glass of good red wine, I was transported back to cathartic times: high school, university, flatting in inner Sydney, playing rugby league in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, backpacking around Europe, singing Country and Western at the Capertee Hotel, performing on stage with the blues band in Bathurst; ah, the memories.

Like just about every other human being on the planet with hearing, there are certain songs indelibly etched into my consciousness that habitually remind me of places, people, and events. Including of course, past loves and relationships long lost, unrequited and/or disastrous.

The best and truly most exquisite quality of music is its power to emotionally transport back to a specific time or person, and the ensuing feelings that in your mind will always be associated with a particular song or record. Just a few bars of the first track on David Bowie’s “Hunky Dory” LP and I am a university student again, headphones on and back in the upstairs listening room of Fisher Library, University of Sydney. Listening to the album “Cold Fact” by Rodriguez and it is not long before I am drifting off into fond memories; I’m twenty years old again, standing in the rain on the doorstep of the flat in North Sydney where the gorgeous Jo lived and feeling the heartache of when we parted. To hear those famous song lyrics about the coloured girls going do, do- do, do, do, do-do from Lou Reed’s song, “Walk on the Wild Side” and suddenly I am watching Lou Reed on stage at the Horden Pavilion, Sydney, with my friend Laurie, who later became addicted to heroin. When I hear the song “When You See a Chance, Take It” off Steve Winward’s solo album “Arc of a Diver”, I cannot help but picture myself in a bedroom in Kensington, London, breaking up with my beautiful and gentle girlfriend of that time and reliving the whole, shameful scene once again. Whenever Boz Scaggs’ FM radio perennial, “Lido Shuffle” comes onto the airwaves, I am back in the front seat of my team captain’s car on the way to another rugby league match in the sunny beach suburbs of Sydney, with warm sunshine on my face and the smell of liniment in my nostrils. Hear any Hank Williams tune and I see the interior of the Capertee Hotel and the smile of a pretty, young darkhaired girl. Listen to the brilliant Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Cold Shot” and I am on stage with the boys at “The Tavern” nightclub in Bathurst, on the long weekend in October 1995- what a fabulous night.

That night in the old house was an extraordinary night of music and memories.

At some stage during last night’s journey into past sensibilities I just had to play the LP record “City to City” by Gerry Rafferty. Most people recognize the second track on that album, the hit song and FM radio favourite, “Baker Street”. It has that killer sax intro by Raphael Ravenscroft that is also the lead break after the first and second verses, combined with a screaming guitar solo by Hugh Burns after the middle eight- a brilliant arrangement and mix. I have always felt a strong connection with that song.

I was working as a barman at the Café Royal at Piccadilly Circus, London, with an older Spanish guy called Pepe. He told me a story about when he used to work as a waiter in a famous Chinese restaurant on Baker Street (the name of the restaurant escapes me right now). He remembered Gerry Rafferty coming in for a meal every now and then. He also told me about the rather large and muscular doorman who was a habitual womanizer and heavy drinker. The doorman liked to tell everyone how he was looking forward to the day when he would stop fooling around with women, make some real money, and move on. He used to tell anyone who would listen how some time soon, he was going to buy some land… give up the booze and the one-night stands… and then settle down, in a quiet little town, and forget about everything. I have always wondered if the doorman ever achieved his dream, and if he knew that the song “Baker Street” was written about him. I wonder what happened to that boozy, womanising doorman. I wonder if he sits in a little cottage somewhere in the English countryside, late at night, after his loving wife and young children have gone to bed and listens to that record while wearing a big, fat, satisfied grin on his face.  Or is he a lonely, broken man who could never give up binging on alcohol or chasing after women and who habitually travels the pubs of Britain, drunkenly bragging about how a famous song was written about him to people who do not believe his story or know the song?

I think it would be interesting for someone to write a series of personal short stories that were linked with famous songs. For instance, I feel sure that everybody who has ever enjoyed music and has also been in love, would have a story to tell that is associated with a specific piece of music and a special person. I bet that everyone has a song that reminds them of a special time, event or person in their lives.

Pepe also told me a funny story about when the “Rolling Stones” came into that same restaurant on Baker Street to celebrate a birthday. The newly arrived Yugoslav waiter who was serving them all night, did not know who they were. The waiter became so concerned over the expensive champagne tab that these dishevelled looking young louts were rapidly building up, that he refused to bring them any more bottles. The waiter could not comprehend that people who looked so unkempt could possibly have that much money to spend. Pepe took the waiter to the Stones’ table and explained to him who the group of young ruffians were, right in front of them and much to the amusement of Mick Jagger and the boys.

The waiter was mortified.

Christmas Re-gifting

For as long as I can remember, my elderly parents have always been enthusiastic participants in the related practices of re-gifting (passing on unwanted gifts as gifts to others) and the recycling of unwanted items as presents. In fact, if re-gifting was an Olympic sport, I would go as far as to say that my parents would be definite gold medal contenders.

I remember my father giving me a bottle of scotch whisky for my birthday one time that looked suspiciously like the bottle I had given to him for Christmas just a month before. One Easter, I caught my mother re-gifting a box of Turkish Delight to her nephew that I had recently given to her.

Over the last few years, it seems that my parents have elevated the practice of recycling presents to a whole new, esoteric level. Perhaps, they have suddenly become aware of the limited time they have left in this life and resolved to clear the backlog of things unused and unwanted that they have kept around the house in secret drawers and cupboards for years. Perhaps their past successes and lack of detection in this pastime have increased their confidence and contributed to greater proclivity.

 My Maltese parents have always suffered from what I call the “Maltese Frugal Gene”. This means that nothing can ever be thrown out that has even the remotest potential of usefulness in the future. This not only includes all past unwanted gifts, but the wrapping paper they come in as well. So, the concept of passing on unwanted items as birthday or Christmas presents to people who might possibly use them one day, is a very natural and comfortable fit to their character. This, along with a ferocious aversion to spending any money that could possibly be avoided makes for a dangerous combination.

The problem is that re-gifting, when combined with the advancing age of my parents and their subsequent increased propensity towards forgetfulness, sets the stage for some potentially embarrassing scenarios. Sometimes, for example, things that have been known to be in their possession for some time end up as gifts to others who recognise said gifts. It has not been unknown for a gift to be re-wrapped and inadvertently returned to original giver.

Last Christmas, my father gave me an electric shaver as my present. On the surface, a reasonable Christmas gift you may suggest. The odd thing is that it was wrapped in combination with a box of green tea and a packet of gourmet coffee sachets.

The first clue that all was not quite conventional here, was the simple observation that an electric shaver has very little to do with green tea or coffee sachets. It is quite a bizarre combination. In fact, you could argue that these quite diverse items constituted such an incongruous gift as to suggest that one or other of the said items was at the very least, an afterthought, and most probably an opportunist attempt to divest the gift giver of something which was unwanted and simply laying around, taking up space. The next clue was that the electric shaver did not come with an instruction booklet, nor was it packaged in a box. After unwrapping, the shaver simply appeared loose, in a black felt drawstring bag; hmm… Things started to appear a little clearer when I saw the sheepish look on my dear father’s face when he turned and slowly walked away, as I upturned the wrapping while obviously looking to see if anything else was in the package.

I mumbled a confused and surprised “thanks Dad”, trying to look pleased with my used shaver, green tea and coffee sachets, and enthusiastically suggested that I could take this welcome bounty with me to my apartment in Malta on my next trip. I suddenly remembered how, about a year earlier, my father had briefly shown me an electric shaver that he had bought “duty free” in Dubai, and which he said he tried once but did not like very much.

Now, I could not accurately remember the exact appearance of that particular unappreciated shaver, but it did not take a great deal of imagination on my part to realise what had become of it. In fact, it occurred to me that the exact same shaver was most likely to be in my very close proximity at that given moment.

I started to understand the significance of the supplementary items of green tea and gourmet coffee when I remembered my parents’ habit of giving multiple gifts in order to defray attention, and perhaps, annul some of the guilt that came from giving used items as presents. It’s as though they believe that one or two new things in the package would distract the receiver from the main, dud gift, as well as make up for the miserly lack of expenditure- a cunning ploy.

Of course, my father would no sooner think of buying green tea or gourmet coffee as fly to the moon, so they were almost certainly unwanted gifts he had received from someone else. Dare I say it, probably from some other Maltese person from his church or social club? I started to wonder exactly how many times the tea and coffee had been recycled as gifts and determined to check the use-by-date when I got home.

The situation had by now become quite amusing to my two sisters, who were watching this pantomime with more than passing interest. Their time would come.

Somewhat apprehensively, I then began to slowly unwrap the Christmas gift I had received from my mother.

“Oh lovely!”

It was the usual assortment of underwear and socks. A very practical and useful gift. In fact, I can’t remember ever needing to buy underwear or a pair of socks for myself in my entire life. I was pleased with that. But what was this other item in there? Well, how even lovelier. Secreted under said underwear was a handtowel and facecloth boxed set.

“Very nice”, I chirped. “Pretty, powder blue colour isn’t it. And the lace around the edges makes it all look quite attractive”.

My mother missed the ironic tone but my sisters tried rather ineffectively to suppress their chuckles.

It belies any logic or reason to think that any living mother on Earth would not even suspect the inappropriate nature of a gift like a powder blue coloured handtowel and facecloth with lace edging, boxed set, to her middle-aged son-who is not gay. I can only assume that the Maltese Frugal Gene kicked in so strongly on this occasion as to totally obliterate any semblance of common sense my dear mother might possess. Her passionate desire to somehow find some use for this clearly useless gift was so strong in her mind, that it had obviously overridden any and all of the cognitive awareness and understanding that she had accumulated over her eighty odd years on the planet.

My loving mother has an uncanny talent for giving me unwanted articles as presents. The strange thing is that this happens even when I try to avoid disappointment and hint at what I would like as a gift. Sometimes, she overtly asks me what I would like for Christmas or for my birthday and in my ignorant naivety and pathetic optimism, I describe what I might need, only to invariably get something I did not expect. The bespoke gift arrives in a garish, unuseable colour, or of a different and unwanted brand or exhibiting some other variable which totally defeats me. My theory as to why this happens is that once my resourceful mother is armed with a basic description of the desired present, she scours the entire retail district of Greater Western Sydney to find anything that is in any way similar and that is also on sale or discounted for some reason. The Maltese Frugal Gene in action. So, I always get something out of “left field” and something which is not quite right.

One time I let her know that I could do with a new beach towel. I do not know how she did it or where she got one from, but it must have been the only beach towel in the world that does not dry up seawater when you try to use it on your body.

Where on Earth do you find a towel that does not dry? Scientific organisations should employ my mother as a researcher. I do not know what material it was made from but I am sure it would have been a great scientific discovery had it been found in some serendipitous experiment somewhere in a secret laboratory. I imagine a scientist somewhere in communist Russia trying to develop a textile that will not smell of body odour when used, only to have discovered a non-porous towel.

“Hey, Ivan, look what I accidently discovered! Our KGB comrades will be pleased.”

The towel, or one like it, will probably be used in some bizarre application in outer space one day. One thing is near certain however- I bet it was on sale.

Il-Pupa (The Doll)

I have personally re-edited my first book (“Stories My Parents Told Me- Tales of Growing Up in Wartime Malta”) and added four new stories in order to publish a second addition. This is the first story of the book.

The pretty little girl was often seen sitting on the footpath below the window of a substantial two-storey townhouse in Fleur De Lys, a slightly more affluent neighbourhood than the crowded suburb of Ħamrun (hum-rune) where she lived. Clotilde was always sitting there quietly, cross-legged, with her back leaning against the limestone wall of the house, between four and five on Tuesday afternoons. She was pleased that the piano was in the sitting room at the front of the residence and on the ground floor, directly facing the window to the narrow street outside. Her more affluent school friend would leave the window open so that Clotilde could overhear her weekly piano lesson. Clotilde loved to listen to the sound of the piano and desperately wished that her father could afford piano lessons for her. 

Clotilde Maria Laudina Bugeja was almost 9 years old and unusual in that she was very fair skinned, had expressive blue eyes and was crowned with a massive dome of frizzy, auburn coloured hair. People theorised that somewhere in the past there must have entered some remnant of aristocratic DNA into her family genes for her to possess such flaxen features. There must have been a very fair ancestor somewhere along the line and very fair ancestors in Maltese history were almost always upper class. Maybe her features came from a member of the noble families of Spanish descent who ruled from the ancient capital, Mdina, during the fifteenth century. Or, perhaps there was a member of the conquering army of Roger the Norman, descendants of the Vikings who freed Malta from the Saracens, in her family lineage. Maybe her rare colouring was the result of a nocturnal dalliance by one of the crusading Knights of Saint John, sons of the finest and wealthiest families of Europe who were based in Malta for over 250 years and who became the celebrated heroes of Christendom after defeating the advancing Ottoman Turks at the Great Siege of 1565. The Knights, or Kavallieri as the Maltese called them, were sworn to celibacy but had a habit of escaping from their resident auberges through secret passageways by night in search of nefarious activities. The Knights would seek the sexual favours of local women who were the descendants of Phoenicians and described by the ancients as having skin “like milk and honey”. Their raison d’être, to protect Christian interests from the Muslim threat, had long become an anachronism during the final decades of their rule which wascharacterised by decadence, idleness and moral decay.

If not a ruling noble, or a Norman, or a Knight of St. John, then perhaps Clotilde’s fair skin and blue eyes came from British infusion. Malta became a British colony in the year 1800 when Nelson booted out Napoleon’s military forces after their short and unpopular two-year occupation. The new addition to the Empire was administered by British officials and public servants and was their naval base in the Mediterranean for over 150 years. 

But whatever the link with privilege or wealth in the past, in all practical sense, both advantages had well and truly disappeared from Clotilde’s family without a trace. The family was struggling during the terrible conditions in Malta during WWII.

The unusual appearance of Clotilde, her happy eyes and the fact that she was the frailest of 11 children made her cherished around the neighbourhood and the favourite of her father, Dionisio.

Dionisio had heard about the visits of his daughter to Fleur De Lys on Tuesday afternoons and desperately wished he could afford to pay for piano lessons for her.

No one actually called the little girl Clotilde anymore. Her pretty and petite looks led family and affectionate locals alike to call her “Pupa”– the Maltese word for doll (pu-pa). Perhaps her nickname contributed to her passion for the toys she shared her name with, or perhaps it was just the usual desires of a young girl growing up in 1940’s Malta. Pupa would spend hours making miniature clothes out of scraps of cloth that were left over from her mother’s sewing and she would meticulously dress the small, crude, wooden figure that one of her older brothers had made for her as a birthday present. The little wooden present from her brother was the closest thing to a real doll she had ever had.

Pupa was learning to sew at an early age and seemed to have a natural aptitude and interest. Her mother, Lucia, was so pleased that she told neighbours that her little girl would soon start taking care of the family’s sewing needs and would leave school to help out around the house. Her eldest brothers would provide for Pupa and give her pocket money in return for doing their laundry, clothing alterations and repairs until she got married and left home or her brothers set up their own homes. Until her marriage, Pupa would share the small, four-roomed, first floor apartment near the piazza with her parents and those of her ten siblings that were still single. 

The Bugeja family home was inside a narrow three storey building that was identical to both the neighbouring buildings it was attached to on eachside. The small flat had a section along one wall with a sink, two-metre bench top and row of cupboards beneath that acted as the kitchen. The rest of the front space was the dining/living room of around twelve square metres. There was a small washroom/toilet measuring two metres by two metres off the dining area, accessed through a hung curtain. Off two sides of the living area were two bedrooms: one of about twelve square metres and with a small open balcony above the street, for Lucia, Dionisio and the six girls to sleep in and a much smaller one of less than half the sizefor some of the five boys. The remaining boys would sleep on mattresses placed on the floor of the living room. Washing was dried on a shared clothesline on the common roof area and on another small balcony at the back of the apartment which was accessed through a doorway at the end of the kitchen. The clothesline on the roof was shared with the two other families who lived in their building. The furniture was basic. An old, inherited dining table and chairs were used for meals that were cooked on a small, kerosene-fuelled hotplate or at the neighbourhood bakery for Sunday lunch. There was no icebox.An old, wooden sideboard was against a wall in the dining room and a double bed was in each bedroom, under which thin mattresses were stored for those who slept on the floor. The main bedroom had a small dressing table, chest of drawers and wardrobe while the smaller bedroom only had a small wardrobe. There was no need for a lot of storage space as there was not much clothing other than what they wore each day. 

The only thing of any value in the apartment and something the whole family admired was a small but heavy pottery figure of a shepherd boy in a green glaze that sat on the sideboard. In reality, it was probably not very valuable at all but it wasconsidered to be something akin to a luxury item by the family. And heaven help any of the children if they ever so much as touched it. Only the matriarch, Lucia, was allowed to dust the statue and the sideboard it sat on so as to keep itaway from clumsy hands. The closest Pupa would come to the little shepherd boy was to absentmindedly stare at him while the family recited the rosary each night.

Pupa was a little girl who liked school. She had lots of friends, always seemed cheerful in classand was good at lessons. Her teachers were enamoured of Pupa because of her naiveinnocence and her desire to please.

Pupa looked forward to walking to school each morning because she would always pass Giuliano’s shop on St. Joseph’s High Street where she would linger for a few minutes in front of the store window. There, she would gaze at the most beautiful object she had ever seen. To most people it was a fairly modest and unremarkable little dollbut to Pupa it was mesmerising. It had the sweetest, painted little face with intense blue eyes and rouge red cheeks. Pupa loved the doll’s happy and carefree expression and the attraction may have been intensified by the prevailing troubled times of war. The doll’s hair was very unlike that of Pupa, being dead straight, platinum blonde and cut short in a modern style. It wore a simple, pretty, red gingham dress and her outstretched arms seemed to beckon a needy embrace. 

Pupa knew that this doll was something special because Giuliano himself had once told her that it was probably one of the most beautiful dolls in Malta after he had noticed the little girl’s interest. She was comforted by the fact that the doll appeared to be so expensive. She was sure it would never be sold since no one ever seemed to have any money around Ħamrun. Pupa thought that she could probably continue to enjoy viewing the doll through the shop window forever becauseit cost such a huge amount of money. That thought entered her mind every time she dragged herself away from the window and it always brought a smile to her face.

The only problem with school for Pupa was contending with the daily air raids. The children would rarely get through an entire session of lessons without the sirens blaring out a call to the air raid shelters. There was an average of six air raids per day at the height of the Nazi air assault in the first six months of 1942. The children would have to descend into the dark and scaryunderground shelter several times a day. On one occasion during an air raid, Pupa was so frightened and fed-up with going into the shelter that she ran all the way home. The scolding she received from her mother ensured that she never did that again. Sometimes, Pupa would have to spend most of the day and night in the shelters. During the worst of the war, a typical day would begin with breakfast interrupted by an air raid, followed by the journey to school interrupted by another air raid, followed by the first lesson interrupted by yet another air raid and so on throughout the whole day. The comforting thought on days like this for Pupa was that on the way home from school there would be the store window to look into and the doll to fantasise over for a few precious minutes.

Dionisio had watched his little Pupa acting strangely around him for days. She seemed pensive and preoccupied around him.

In her heart, Pupa already knew what her chances were but the desire for the doll was so strong that she felt she had to try: 

“Papa, you know Giuliano’s shop on High Street?” 

“Yes, Pupa I do. He is a very shrewd businessman and smooth talker, that Giuliano. He has lots of nice things in there, but he is far too expensive.” Dionisio had suspected that a request was imminent. 

“Do you know he has one of the most beautiful dolls in all of Malta in his shop?” 

“I didn’t know that, my love. If it is one of the most beautiful dolls in Malta, it must be very expensive. Things like that are not for people like us. They are only for the sinjuri.” (the wealthy)

There was a moment’s silence. Pupa wasdefeated.

“Yes . . . only the sinjuri…anyway, the doll is beautiful! So, so beautiful! You can see it from the shop window if you like. You should go and take a look, Pa, you’ll love it.” 

Dionisio was moved by his little girl’s obvious infatuation. He did take a look at the doll one daywhen he passed by Giuliano’s, just out of interest and without his daughter knowing that he had done so. True, it was a pretty doll as Pupa had said. But any doll, no matter what the price, would be out of the question. How could he waste money on a toy when a single piece of fruit had to be divided into small pieces for each child to have something to eat? It made Dionisio sad to think that his precious little girl would never have a doll of her own.

Pupa and her classmates did not get much schooling in the spring of 1942. The Nazis had decided that Malta must fall because of the tiny nation’s strategic location in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea between Sicily to the northand Libya to the south. Malta was a serious threat to AXIS shipping sailing from Italy to North Africa. The Nazi plan was to move across North Africa from Libya and capture Egypt where they could seize the Suez Canal and subsequently control the supply of oil from Middle East oilfields. The successful Allied disruption of the Axis supply route of materials and reinforcements to North Africa, launched from the British base in Malta, had been one of the few Allied success stories of the war up to that point.

In May 1942, German Field Marshall Rommel warned that “without Malta, the Axis will end by losing control of North Africa. Malta waspounded relentlessly with bombing. Luftwaffe records show that during the first six months of attacks, there was only one twenty-four hour period without an air raid. During this period Malta suffered 154 continuous days of air raids.In comparison, the London Blitz experienced 57 continuous days of bombing. The main island of Malta, at 246 sq. km. in total area is less than one sixth the size of the City of London. Furthermore, the bombing was concentrated on the central region of the island, especially the Grand Harbour area and central airfields. In the month of April alone, enemy planes executed 9,500 sorties over Malta resulting in 282 air raid alerts.

The Maltese feared the Germans during this time. Earlier in the war, the reluctant Italian pilots flew so high in order to avoid the anti-aircraft guns thattheir payload sometimes missed the island altogether and their bombs fell into the sea. But since the Luftwaffe took charge of the campaign the strikes were clinically efficient anddevastating in their effect. The Germans flew in low, reduced large areas to rubble and strafed anything on the ground that looked alive, including women, children and the elderly. Some of the worst of it was when the German planes dropped attractive little toys for children which exploded when they were picked up and played with. 

The continuous bombing forced many Maltese to an almost subterranean existence in bomb shelters and caves. Many families dug rooms into the underground shelters and ancient limestone bastions or moved in with other families into larger public shelters. Many took bedding and cooking equipment with them for prolonged staysin crowded, poorly ventilated and unhygienic lodgings. Combined with the meagre rations and associated malnutrition, these conditions created serious health problems. As is often the case in these situations, it was the children who sufferedmost. 

In the summer of 1942, bombing had damaged sewer pipes resulting in raw sewage contaminating drinking water supplies. This in turn led to a typhoid epidemic. It seemed particularly cruel that for some reason it was the children and youth of the island whom were most susceptible. 

Pupa, one of her brothers and four of her sisters all began to fall sick at around the same time. It started with headaches and fever, then developed into a rash, vomiting, severe muscle pain and delirium. Pupa’s eldest sister at 18 years of agewas the first to show signs of this disease which has been associated with war and misery since ancient times. She died within 24 hours ofmanifesting the first symptoms.

Pupa and her remaining siblings hung on for weeks. Her mother stayed with them at Saint Luke’s hospital in nearby Gwardamangia where she managed to get all the siblings placed into the one room. Lucia nursed them and comforted them, sleeping in the same room as the children and never leaving their side. Dionisio looked after the other children back at the apartment but visited every day and brought what little joy he could.

One by one, the children grew stronger and with the constant nursing of Lucia, recovered and returned home. Only delicate little Pupa remained in the hospital with her loving mother, four months after she was first admitted. 

Dionisio knew how much Pupa hated being in hospital and away from her brothers and sisters. He would try to time his visits to coincide with what would have been family meal times to try and distract her from thinking of her siblings. It broke his fatherly heart to see her sob every time it was time for him to go back home to the other children.

One day, at the end of his visit, Pupa did not cry.She simply looked back at him blankly. This frightened Dionisio and he feared that her happyeyes may have left her forever. Dionisio was anxious. He wondered if it was only sadness andresignation that remained with his daughter.

The knock at the door came around midmorning. A young man had been sent to fetch Dionisio as quickly as possible since they did not think there was much time left. Pupa was dying. The priest had already been called to administer last rites.

Dionisio took a deep breath and forced out a long guttural sound from deep within that soundedangry. The enraged father approached the young stranger and cried as he grabbed the disconcertedmessenger by the shoulders and shook him.

“NO”.

He released the shocked boy and calmed down.

Dionisio hung his head in hopelessness. As he slowly raised his head, the line of sight from his moist eyes drifted through the window of their first storey apartment onto the narrow street below. He thought of the High Street.

Dionisio remembered the doll in Giuliano’s shop.

Pupa would not die without having the one thing she had wanted most dearly in all of her short life.

As Dionisio stared up at the ceiling for inspiration, ideas shot into his mind on how he could convince Giuliano to part with the doll. What would he say to him? How much money could he lay his hands on at this moment? Would he have to steal the doll and run? 

Dionisio frantically looked around the roomtrying to decide what to do. His eyes darted around in different directions until he saw the sideboard.

His sight seized on the green figurine.

Dionisio’s eyes widened as the epiphany struck. He grabbed the treasured statue more roughly than it had ever been handled before and rushed down the stairs, along the street and across the piazza, down the High Street and into Giuliano’s shop. With tears rolling down his face and his passionate begging, it would have taken a truly heartless man to refuse the proposed exchange.

Giuliano relented.

Dionisio arrived at the hospital breathing heavily.Tightly clutching the doll, he rushed into Pupa’s room in time to witness the priest hunched over one side of the hospital bed, administering the last rites to his beloved child. Pupa’s face was so pale that it appeared as though every last drop of blood had deserted her. A light sheen of perspiration glistened over her forehead while sweat pasted down a few stray locks of curly hair over her brow and into her eyelashes. The child’s beautiful blue eyes were half closed and weeping gently.

Lucia was sitting on the edge of the bed beside the priest holding Pupa’s limp little hand, staring into the eyes of her dying chid and quietly sobbing.

The priest was startled and then confused asDionisio approached and shouted,

“Pupa look, LOOK!” as he suddenly pushed the doll between the priest and Lucia towards his little girl.

The priest stopped muttering his prayers. His mouth fell open and he jerked back out of the way as the little girl who had been drifting in and out of consciousness sat bolt upright, with armsoutstretched and snatched the doll from her wild-eyed father. Dionisio saw that Pupa’s eyes weresmiling, just before she lay back down and slipped again into coma.

Minutes later Pupa stirred and opened her eyes once more. This time she remained conscious and did not slip away.

****

The doctor later explained to Dionisio that he believed it was the shock of seeing the doll that jolted Pupa back into consciousness and helped motivate her remarkable recovery.

Unfortunately, the doll was passed on to relatives and lost after Clotilde grew to adulthood and immigrated to Australia. But decades later, a photograph with the doll appearing in the background was discovered by one of her sisters. Clotilde – Pupa – now has that old and faded photo to keep in remembrance. 

No one knows what became of the small green figurine.

 

A New Character

Just as if in a metaphor for her life, the day started out being sunny then became overcast, pending the quickly approaching cold front. The wind changed direction, temperature decreased, pressure increased and there was a high possibility of showers.

The previous twenty-four hours had been another day of confusion, indecision, inconsistencies and eccentricities. It began with the morning selection of clothes to wear, had extended into the choice of breakfast, then developed from there.

She thought to herself, when? She seriously tried to identify the instant, or at least the approximate period of her life, that she started being eccentric; or rather, when did people start identifying her as eccentric. Of course, the existentialist in her would say, same thing. The realist in her would say, bullshit. She could never quite decide between the two.

She used to be cute. They thought she was funny. And not in a bad way. She was considered to have joie de vivre. Friends would laugh when she went “left field”, when she said something unpredictable and/or incongruous. Then she became…strange. At least, in the eyes of others she did. Her friends said that she thought too much, analyzed things in too much detail and saw too many alternatives, too many different interpretations. She was even accused of being too intelligent. She became unsure, indecisive… vague. Weird. People stopped asking her how she was when they met. They avoided asking her any question. People at work started rolling their eyes when she walked into a room. They exchanged furtive glances as she agonised aloud over whether she felt like tea or coffee- for five minutes. It became almost impossible for her to decide to want anything.

People thought it odd that she always seemed to be alone. She was considered reasonably attractive to men, but never seemed to have a boyfriend. She was strange. She knew it.

Carol Azzapardi was 34 years old. She was not pretty but not unattractive either. She had a round face, accented further by short cropped, Audrey Hepburn type hair that always seemed a little messy. She was slightly above average height and slim. Her physical assets were obvious- rather large, round breasts.  She understood that she was physically attractive to men…or was that just her breasts?  She regularly disguised their size in loose fitting clothing.  But men still discovered them, somehow. Men were tenacious when it came to breasts. She theorised that it must have something to do with infant imprinting of boys who were breastfed. Or perhaps it was the ones who weren’t breastfed that were so obsessed? No, she concluded that they were all obsessed.

She described herself as moderately attractive, but not very.

Eyes: sort of brown, or hazel, depending on the prevailing light.

Figure: slim, to most people, but not to really slim people.

She didn’t know if she wanted children.

No particularly strong interests or hobbies.

Not really an outdoor type. Nor indoor.

Her online dating profile didn’t attract much interest. Except for a few men who asked questions like was she openminded, did she like sex and what was her bra size.

Today was going to be a big day for Carol Azzapardi. She was going into town, shopping. She would have a Feastburger for lunch …or perhaps something else. She had worked out how to avoid her problem with indecision. The staff at her local fast-food outlet were used to her. She would simply ask the crew member to choose something for her and eat whatever they chose. It saved time and angst. This worked on most visits, unless a new crew member offered her a choice between two or more meal deals. Last week she had a Feastburger, fries with that and a small thick shake, any flavour. Easy. Such a relief.

The shopping would be more difficult. She needed to buy a new washing machine as the old one had died. Would she be able to decide on anything? Carol was dreading the mental anguish to come.

The Law

You want to know something interesting? he proffered.

I suppose you’re going to tell me (she rolls her eyes).

I was people watching in Valletta today, just opposite the Law Courts, and it definitely looks to me that 99% of couples are evenly matched when it comes to their level of physical attractiveness. It may have been my proximity to the court house, but I was thinking that it was… like a rule, or a law, or something. A law of nature.

Oh yeah? Fascinating.

Yeah (you don’t have to be sarcastic, you know). No. Really. You rarely see a couple where one partner is a lot more attractive than the other. I mean, you always get exceptions to any law. In this case, it would be the phenomenon of “punching above your weight” and all that, but that’s pretty damn unusual. Mostly it’s fairly even. Very attractive looking women seem to be with very attractive looking men, moderately attractive men seem to be with moderately attractive women, unattractive looking people seem to be partnered with other unattractive looking people, obese people are mostly with other obese people, partners are around the same age etc. etc. It all seems to be in balance. And another law is that the male is usually a little taller than the female.

Bad luck for you, there.

Oh, thanks. Thanks a lot. Very nice of you.

Well……

As a matter of fact, I am very attracted to tall women. I wouldn’t care at all if my partner was taller. Even, much taller. I’m very non-sexist about that. In fact, my sexual fantasy is to sleep with a giant woman.

That would make her a sleeping giant.

Will you stop it, please? I’m trying to have a sensible conversation, here.

Sensible conversation … about sleeping with giant women.

YES. Back to the discussion. Just like in criminal law, in “the law of equal partner attractiveness” – I think I’m onto something, here! – there are mitigating and aggravating factors. When it comes to matching attractiveness, justice is achieved with these balancing factors. Height is an example. A man can be with a slightly more attractive woman if he is more than just slightly taller than her. Or wealth; vis a vis older man, younger woman. And breasts when it comes to women- obvious BIG factor.

!!!!!

And humour. Girls love “funny”. It’s all about achieving justice in the law of equal attractiveness. You see! just like a judge using mitigating and aggravating factors to work out justice in sentencing a criminal.

This whole conversation is borderline criminal, if you ask me. So…girls love “funny”? Guess that leaves you out again.

Will you quit it! What is with you?

Just being the devil’s advocate.

Oh, droll…very droll… “advocate” …very funny.

I love funny.