Adventures of “Pupa”

The visits to Nannu Chupa’s farm were like spending time on another planet for the young Bugeja children; an escape from their poverty, hunger and constant stress of life on the margins of survival. The children would be fed, play in the garden and forget their cares for the day. Sometimes they would be enlisted to help around the farm. They were taught how to feed livestock and harvest fruit and vegetables.

At the end of the day, before Nannu Chupa would take the children home or else give them bus fare for the trip back to Ħamrun, he would enter a room within the house that was otherwise permanently locked and return with a bag of farm produce for them to take back to their grateful parents. On one occasion, Pupa was allowed to accompany her family’s benefactor into the mysterious room to see him reveal an Aladdin’s Cave filled with boxes of fruit, grain, vegetables, eggs, cheeses, preserves, cured meats and a multitude of other edible treasures. Pupa stood at the entrance to the concealed cavern incredulous, mouth agape and mesmerised by the unimaginable cornucopia. She would not have believed that there was as much food in all of Ħamrun as she had seen there that day. Later, Pupa was sworn to secrecy by Nannu Chupa and promised that God would punish her and her family terribly if she ever uttered a word to anyone about what she had seen in that secret room.

There was only one drawback for Pupa to the generally agreeable visits to Naxxar.

Nannu Chupa had an adult spinster daughter who, although benevolent and well-intentioned, terrified the little girl. Constanza was a thickset, muscular and stern young woman of about thirty. She still wore black as a sign of mourning at the death of her mother who died unexpectedly while Constanza was only a youngster and since then had dedicated her life to looking after her father. She wore her dark hair pulled back in a severe style and her head was often covered in a hairnet so that she could prepare and handle food in a hygienic way. Pupa’s childish imagination placed Constanza into the category of a clandestine witch from fairy-tale folklore.

Constanza had a very brusque and efficient manner and kept the house scrupulously clean and tidy to the point that Pupa was afraid to touch anything in case she left a mark.  It didn’t help matters that every visit to the farm started in the same, intimidating way for the little girl.

On arrival, Nannu Chupa would usher Pupa and her accompanying siblings into the dining room and seat them together on a long wooden bench at the dining table. He would then summon Constanza and pass on identical instructions to his dutiful daughter each time:

“Constanza, make sure you feed these poor children to their fill. Feed them as if it was their last meal for a week.”

 Constanza would take her father’s instructions not only seriously, but literally as well. She would begin by going into the goat pen with large drinking glasses and a tray from the kitchen. Constanza would then milk a goat directly into the glass tumblers until a large, full glass of fresh warm milk was obtained for each child. She would gather the glasses together onto the tray, march back into the dining room where Pupa and her siblings would be waiting and slam down a tall glass of milk onto the table in front of each child. The hefty woman would then stand over the children and order them to drink the entire glassful, repeating her father’s instructions aloud if any child dared to waiver from downing every last drop. The petite and delicate Pupa was not accustomed to a full belly and always had trouble finishing off the warm, rich goat’s milk, especially knowing that more was to imminently follow.

But Constanza showed no mercy.

Immediately after the last of the milk was forced down, what appeared to Pupa as a huge baking dish of imqarrun[1] (a pasta dish made with pork, eggs and cheese) straight from the oven, would be placed in front of the children who were then given forks and commanded to finish the entire spread. Sometimes, when Constanza was out of the dining room and busy in the kitchen, Pupa would have to enlist the assistance of one of the farm dogs to help finish the fantastic feast. On other occasions Pupa would start crying before she was allowed to stop eating. Once this preliminary ordeal was accomplished, the rest of the day could be enjoyed without too much attention from Constanza.

On one such visit Pupa was accompanied by her teenage brother, Nesto. Nannu Chupa had picked up the two of them from Ħamrun in the cart and pony only a day or two before Easter and taken them to Naxxar. They had a lovely day at the farm and an even lovelier surprise when it came time to leave.

Nannu Chupa could not take them home on this occasion so he gave them the bus fare for the return trip along with a special Easter gift of a Maltese one-pound note. It was a tremendous amount of money to the two impoverished children. Pupa knew that the father of her friend, Harry, was a policeman and that his family was regarded as being quite well off because policemen earned a full one pound per day in salary. Consequently, she felt that they were currently in possession of great wealth. Of course, they would have to give the money to their mother, or so Pupa thought.

Her older and more streetwise brother had different ideas and told her so as they travelled on the bus back to Ħamrun:

“Look at this! I have never had this much money in my hand before! Let’s have some fun, Pupa. Come on, let’s buy some of those pasti from the patisserie opposite the piazza at Ħamrun and go for a ride on a karozzin.”

“But won’t we get into trouble if we spend the money?” replied Pupa.

“No one will ever know. Besides, Nannu Chupa gave us the money as an Easter present. It’s ours. Come on Pupa, we have never been able to buy any of those pasti before and probably will never get the chance again. And they look so wonderful. I can’t help but stare at them every time I walk past the window of the patisserie. I’m dying to try one. Come on. Let’s do it!” 

The innocent little girl was persuaded. The pair of siblings got off the bus at the piazza and ran across the road to the patisserie. Nesto bought an entire boxful of assorted pasti and each child quickly scoffed down one of their choice and washed it down with a soft drink. The next part of the adventure was a little more problematic.

Nesto took the box of pasti in one hand and his little sister in the other as they approached a karozzin that was parked at the piazza.

Nesto spoke up to the driver in a confident tone of authority and tried to sound very adult:

“Driver, please take us to Sliema and bring us back again.”

The driver looked at the two children suspiciously:

Where would two young children get the fare for a ride to Sliema and back? Why would kids from Ħamrun be going to such a classy town? And why were they not taking the much cheaper bus? He wondered.

“So, what are you two doing riding a karozzin to Sliema? Where are your parents? Do you have the money? He asked of the now nervous Nesto.

The clever little street urchin was good at thinking fast:

“Oh…ah… mama is busy today… she gave me the money to take my sister for a ride as a treat…it’s her birthday! My mother said I could take her. Here, see, I have the money.”

The karozzin driver looked at the coins in Nesto’s outstretched hand then turned towards the cute, innocent looking little girl and smiled:

“Oh, how lucky you are to have such a nice brother and generous mother. I’ll give you a special ride today for your birthday. Climb in, both of you.”

The brother and sister felt like royalty as they greedily emptied the box of pasti, one by one, while sitting high on the plush leather bench inside the carriage that was pulled by a beautiful jet-black horse, being chauffeured along the seafront promenade of the posh holiday destination and high-class place of residence for British colonials and wealthy Maltese.

Back in Ħamrun, Lucia was feeling worried as the children had never been so late returning from Naxxar.

For their part, Pupa and Nesto had eaten far too many pasti. They would not have been able to explain the sweet treats if they took any home and could not bear the waste of throwing any away, so they ate the entire boxful. They were looking off-colour and obviously feeling ill when they finally returned to their concerned mother at the flat in Maitland Street.

Nesto told Lucia that they were late because they had to wait a long time for the bus and that they were sick from eating too much at Nannu Chupa’s. Lucia was somewhat annoyed at Chupa for not bringing the children home in the cart and sending them home on the bus even though they were feeling ill but could not bring herself to criticise the wonderful man who had been so generous to them.

However, Lucia did briefly mention to Chupa how Pupa and Nesto had returned very late and feeling poorly, when he came back the following week with his pony and cart to pick up more children.  Chupa listened to Lucia and glanced at Pupa who was standing beside her mother looking decidedly guilty, but he did not say a word. Later, Chupa let Pupa know in no uncertain terms that he knew the two children had not gone straight home with the one pound gift after the Easter visit. He managed to extract a full confession from a remorseful and tearful Pupa. Chupa reprimanded the two miscreants severely but showed his benevolence and compassion by never telling on them to their parents. It remained their secret.

****

Decades later, Nesto had married and was living in his own house with his wife and several children. He had become a paraplegic and was permanently in a wheelchair as a result of a motorcycle accident, when the adult Pupa visited him all the way from her new home, far across the sea. Pupa had grown into a beautiful young woman, married and immigrated with her husband to Australia. She had become a mother to three children and through hard work in menial jobs, had saved enough money for a brief visit to her homeland and the family she had so sadly left behind. The older brother who had led her astray with one Maltese pound that Easter reminisced with his sister and reminded her of their brazen childhood adventure; the Sliema escapade that was never found out by their unsuspecting parents.

It was to be the last time brother and sister laughed and reminisced together.



[1] Pronounced “im-un-rune”

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Still More Harry

A short time after the war and when Harry was around 14 years of age, an uncle gave the boy a couple of driving lessons. This gave Karmenu an idea on how to make some money.

The wily old grandfather knew of some men who owned a small boat and who smuggled barrels of wine into Malta from Sicily. He imagined that he could purchase some barrels of contraband wine and peddle the wine to the many bars and taverns all over the island at a bargain price, devoid of tax, and make a tidy profit. The owners of the establishments would be happy for the cheap wine along with the lack of records for the taxman and they would have their own bottles or containers for the wine.

Karmenu knew of an old Bedford, tabletop truck he could hire cheaply from a cousin. The cousin had inherited the vehicle but like Karmenu, could not drive. Now that Harry had benefited from driving lessons, Karmenu had a readymade partner in crime.

Karmenu had a small pile of cash hidden away in the house that Maria did not know about, saved from his grave and shelter digging days. This was just the opportunity he had been waiting for to utilise that stash and turn it into a small fortune. It also sounded good to young Harry because he liked the idea of being the driver in this intriguing scheme.

Karmenu settled on a price with the cousin and they picked up the truck.

It was in a state of disrepair with very sloppy steering and shoddy brakes that had to be pumped before they worked but both Karmenu and Harry were convinced that the beaten-up old heap would soon make them rich.

Karmenu purchased several barrels of wine from the smugglers and with Harry’s help, loaded the truck.

Harry’s driving was not competent nor experienced but he was careful and slow, rarely getting out of second gear all the way around the island to the various villages and towns. They started off early in the morning and emptied the last barrel of wine just as evening fell.

As Karmenu expected, the many tavern owners were very receptive. The trip was a great success and Karmenu had a nice, fat wad of pound notes in his pocket.

 The way back home was precarious. Not only did they have sloppy steering and shoddy brakes to contend with, but the headlights on the old bomb barely got above a mild glow. Karmenu and Harry were doing okay until they got lost somewhere outside the town of Mosta and noticed that they were also running out of fuel.

The massive church at Mosta boasts the third largest unsupported dome in Europe, after Saint Peter’s in the Vatican and Saint Paul’s in London. This church is renowned because on April 9th, 1942, a 500-kilogram bomb dropped from a German aeroplane had fallen through the roof of the church, skidded along the floor and came to a complete halt near the centre of the basilica without exploding[1]. During this event, not one person from a congregation of about 300 people was injured. This was generally regarded as a miracle and confirmation for the Maltese that God was on their side in the war. A replica of the bomb remains in a glass case at the back of the church and the repaired patch in the ceiling is still visible to this day.

Both the old man and the boy simultaneously made the sign of the cross as they passed the famous church.

A few miles further into the countryside and all of a sudden, coming up a narrow dirt road in the opposite direction, was an elderly farmer sitting sideways on an old wooden cart that was being pulled by a tall, skinny mule. Harry was driving the truck speedily in his enthusiasm to get home before dark and in the naïve hope of doing so before they ran out of fuel. Both Harry and Karmenu cried out:

“Ġesù Kristu!”[2]

Karmenu and Harry invoked the name of the Lord in unison as the old farmer, cart and mule gradually came into view through the soft light of dusk. There was no way both parties could pass abreast in this narrow street.

Harry slammed both feet hard on the brakes, nearly pushing the pedal through the floor and then pumped for his life. Karmenu leaned over and wrenched up the handbrake with all his might. They almost stopped in time.

The truck smashed one side of the cart into splinters while scraping the other side along a drystone wall then continued on, carrying the old farmer akimbo a few metres back along the wall. The mule ended up sitting on the road with its other half in the air pulled up by the front fork of the cart that was pointing to the sky, as the whole entourage came to a complete halt.

There was a moment of silence as the stunned farmer composed himself.

Swearing in Maltese, by the Maltese, is not pretty. It typically involves the Virgin Mary, other religious figures, mothers and often the Turks get a mention somewhere in there as well (the Maltese know how to hold a grudge). Karmenu desperately tried to calm the injured man down, but the farmer kept screaming for the police in between bouts of obscene abuse directed at the pair. With no licence, no vehicle registration, contraband wine and an underage driver, Karmenu and Harry were in deep trouble if the law ever became involved. They had to shut this crazy man up, somehow.

Karmenu panicked. He pulled the thick wad of pound notes out of his pocket and slapped it into the old farmer’s hand. The man’s eyes almost fell out of their sockets as he stared at the money and he abruptly fell silent.

“Here, this will buy you 10 carts, you old bugger!”

The trip home was taken in silence. The grandfather and the boy reached home physically shaken and broke. Karmenu sadly nodded to Maria on their return to the house in Birkirkara.

Where have you two been all this time?”

Karmenu walked off slowly in dejected silence without answering. Harry went off to bed early.

****

Harry – my father – visited his elderly nannu to say goodbye just before his new bride, Clotilde, and himself immigrated to Australia. Karmenu was now a very old man and not in good health. Karmenu still felt much attached to the grandson he had helped raise from childhood and knew that this would be the last time he would see him. A month-long voyage by sea to the other side of the world to start a new life was regarded as most final in those days. The impoverished old man had nothing to offer the young husband for his new life’s journey, but a used woollen blanket. My father suspected that the blanket was his grandfather’s only spare and tactfully declined to take it.

The old man’s heart was broken and he cried as he watched his beloved, young accomplice walk out of his life forever.


[1] https://bit.ly/2SbmVvq

[2] Maltese for “Jesus Christ”

More Harry

One night, when Harry was about 11 years old, he was awakened by a nightmare. He dreamt that he was crouching on a rooftop watching an air raid when one of the low flying German pilots streaking past turned his head and met his eyes. Harry watched but could not move as the Messerschmitt dipped one wing, banked in the air and came back towards him. The boy could see the pilot’s eyes smiling as he approached right at eye level, his thumb raised over the joystick. Harry’s feet were stuck fast to the spot. Just before the impending impact, Harry sat up in bed with a gasp.

The boy was unsettled by the dream and got up to fetch a drink of water from the kitchen. As he was standing over the sink, he heard noises coming from the street outside. Looking through the window, Harry saw a cart being slowly drawn by an old horse. The cart had a tarpaulin loosely drawn over a bulging load. After peering closely through the darkness for a minute or two, Harry could just make out that the cart was laden with lots of small, round loaves of Maltese bread. He watched for a few minutes as it turned into the college which belonged to the Jesuit friars and that had been converted into a hospital for sick and wounded British troops. Harry looked at the old clock chiming the time in the kitchen. It was 4am.

The next day at noon, Harry mentioned what he had seen the night before to his nannu as the latter was taking his lunch. Karmenu became very interested in this clandestine delivery.

“Let’s see if it happens again.”

The next night Karmenu slept fitfully as he woke early and listened for the old clock to chime 4am. He went to the kitchen and watched through the window. The cart with the crusty brown treasure went past once again. The grandfather concluded that this was a daily delivery to the hospital for British soldiers, carried out under the cover of darkness for security reasons. An open cart full of fresh bread through the streets of Birkirkara during the daytime would not have lasted long.

“We’ll see about this,” chuckled Karmenu. He smiled in anticipation of a new escapade.

For weeks after that, whenever bread was getting scarce at the little house, Karmenu would wake Harry up at around a quarter to four in the morning and send him out to tiptoe up to the back of the cart and surreptitiously lift off one of the round, crusty loaves. The old driver, peering straight ahead into the early morning light to see where he was going was never the wiser.

Eventually, inevitably, Maria found out what was happening and hit the roof.

“We have been eating bread stolen from the church! We will all burn in the fires of hell. God have mercy!”

“Oh, Maria, it’s not the church any more. It’s an English hospital.”

“Ah, good. Then it’s from the mouths of the sick that we are stealing. And from a consecrated place. Madonna!”

“Oh, get away! L-Ingliżi (the English) have plenty of bread to share with us.”

“They have less to share with you two thieves around!”

Once Maria knew where the extra bread was coming from she refused to eat it. Her strong religious beliefs meant that she would rather go hungry than swallow the sinful sustenance. She was certain that the two thieves would go straight to hell if they did not repent. Maria said special prayers for all their souls every morning and night. She was convinced that she had already condemned herself to years of purgatory after her death, at the very least, by unwittingly eating the holy contraband and never did forgive Karmenu. Hers was a cruel God.

Every time the old couple had a serious quarrel, for the rest of Karmenu’s life, the stolen loaves would come up at some stage in the argument, along with the presumed fact that Maria’s entry into heaven would be delayed after her death because of him.

Years later, after the war had ended and things on the island got back to near normal, a special delivery would be made to the college of Jesuit friars every year. A fresh, crusty, round loaf of traditional Maltese bread wrapped in paper would mysteriously appear on the doorstep of the college on a morning around Christmas time. The Jesuits were initially perplexed and asked around to find out who was making the annual deliveries, but to no avail. Eventually, they decided to suppress their curiosity and just accept the bread as providence.

Years went by and the war in Malta was now a horrible memory. The Germans had joined the Ottoman Turks in infamy as defeated enemies. For the second time, a great siege in Malta ended around the time of the feast of Our Lady of Victories on the 15th of August. For a second time that feast day was enshrined into Malta’s collective, celebratory spirit. Malta had played a significant role in the defeat of the Nazis through its essential contribution to a famous North African triumph. The campaign in North Africa was the first major victory by the Allies of WWII and one which seriously weakened the German war campaign while at the same time strengthening that of the Allies. Arguably, it was an important turning point and accelerated the ending of the war. [1]

Malta had also provided the planning headquarters for the Allied invasion of Sicily in July, 1943, which subsequently paved the way for the invasion and eventual capture of the entire Italian peninsula in September of that same year.[2]  

In the end, Karmenu died peacefully in his bed at a distinguished old age. Maria passed on very soon after. It was not until the old gravedigger’s wife had also died that the mysterious loaves stopped appearing every Christmas on the doorstep of the Jesuit College.


[1] https://bit.ly/2G4zdPU

[2] Holland, James (2004), Fortress Malta: An Island Under Siege, 1940-43, London, Phoenix, p.170.

Harry

***

Nine-year-old Harry Grech was the middle child of five. He was chosen from among his three brothers and sister to live with his grandfather, Karmenu, and his grandmother, Maria, in the large town of Birkirkara. It was Maltese cultural tradition which dictated that one child be chosen to live with elderly grandparents to help with household chores after children had married and left home. Young, mischievous Harry seemed to have a special bond with his nannu (grandfather in Maltese), so he was selected for this role.

Karmenu and Maria lived in a tiny, single storey maisonette squeezed in between two identical maisonettes in the older section of Birkirkara. The old man made a living digging graves and underground shelters. The war had given this gentle, softly-spoken man lots of work and when he was not digging graves, he could be found digging air raid shelters with his prized pick and shovel.

Karmenu’s lifelong habit of kneeling on his left knee while digging had resulted in permanent damage, along with some degree of mocking from the local children who found a gravedigger with a limp to be quite hilarious.

Maria was a harsh taskmistress and ruled over the household with an iron will. She was also sternly religious and allowed no vices, immoral conduct or even mild failings of character into the house. Karmenu was glad to have Harry as an ally and confidant, but Maria was tough on the boy.

Apart from the daily chores around the house and the carrying of heavy shopping bags and baskets for his grandparents, it was Harry’s job to take Karmenu’s tiffin to wherever the man was working each day. The location was described and directions were explained at breakfast so that Harry could time his journey accurately and arrive at noon. This process worked well and Harry was happy to get away from the house of no fun and sit each day with his nannu for a lunchtime of unscrutinised conversation.

One day, Harry was on his usual journey with his nannu’s lunch in a cane basket when he passed by a parked karozzin (traditional horse-drawn carriage). The driver and his horse were resting in the shade of an old olive tree. The scruffy looking driver of the karozzin had his cap pulled down partly over his eyes. He watched the boy approaching and asked what he had in the basket. Young, naïve Harry replied that it was some lunch for his nannu. Like everyone else on that island at the time, the driver was desperate for any extra food for himself and his family and saw this as an opportunity.

“Do you like ħarrub, little boy?”

Now, ħarrub (carob in English) is a bitter tasting fruit that grew wild all over Malta and that was often fed to livestock when feed was scarce. It was and still is considered practically worthless. Young children used to roast the brown, pulpy fruit on the end of sticks over an open fire and eat them for fun.

The boy nodded.

“I have the best, sweetest-tasting ħarrub in all Malta, from a secret place far away from here. I wish I could give you one, but I promised them to my children and I had to drive all the way to Mellieħa (an agricultural town in the north of Malta) to get them.

Sometimes, my children even sell them to other children, they taste that good! I’d like to give you one, but I better not.”

“Could you give me just a small one?”

The boy had been caught hook, line and sinker.

“Look, I’ll tell you what we’ll do. I’ll swap you a few of these special ħarrub for whatever you have in your basket.”

After the deal and on the way to where his nannu was working that day, Harry gradually realised what had happened. Being ashamed and afraid, he went home without making the rendezvous with his nannu.

All was calm until Karmenu arrived home that evening.

“Maria, what happened to my lunch today?”

“What do you mean? I sent your lunch with the boy as I always do.”

“Well, I didn’t get it. I had no lunch today and stayed hungry.”

Maria looked around for the boy:

“Harry!”

Harry heard the misanthropic matriarch screech his name. The jig was up. He ran through the house to the front door as fast as his skinny, little legs could take him with Maria in hot pursuit. Harry squeezed through the doorway just as Maria grabbed at him, jamming her fingers in the slamming door.

Maria screamed. The boy ran for his life down the street.

Harry slept rough that night in the park and it was another day before he had the courage to return home. Karmenu sympathetically and surreptitiously let the terrified boy sneak back into the house during a quieter moment.

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.”

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.