Curmudgeon Conversation (for Nobby)

 

“I used to be high on life… but I’ve built up a tolerance.”
She was startled by his sudden outburst.
“Well, that’s a cheery thought”, she smirked.
“I know, but it’s true. It’s life’s cruel joke that just when you begin to get your head together, your body falls apart. It should all be in reverse. You should start life at say, 85 years of age, and then get a year younger every 12 months until you simply disappear. Just imagine being a teenager with a lifetime of wisdom, experience and accumulated wealth. I detest the idea of growing old.”
“Well, you can’t do much about it so you may as well be positive about it and grow old gracefully.”
“Oh, no! Don’t you dare. I can’t stand it. Don’t start that, growing old is a privilege, garbage. Good luck to those who can make themselves believe that rubbish, but I’m not that delusional. Just what’s positive about physical and cognitive decay? Three cheers for senility? Let’s hear it for bad backs and hip replacements? Not to mention inching nearer to death. And what about those people who say: When I look back on my life, I wouldn’t change a thing? Makes me feel like slapping them. I want to say to them: you idiot, didn’t you learn anything? It’s all pathetically defensive. A fatuous way to cope with the irreversibility of ageing and avoid regret and responsibility. Death will be a relief, in a way.”
“Boy, you really are in a mood.”
“Don’t call me boy.”

Advertisements

Epilogue

Last night I had a dream. It was as if I was in a movie.
It was 1912 and I was on a luxury passenger liner on its maiden voyage, crossing the Atlantic. The ship had just collided with an iceberg and we were sinking. In the background, I could hear a band playing “Nearer, My God, to Thee”, somewhere on deck.
I was slowly ascending a wide staircase with brass balustrades on both sides and all was bathed in an eerie, golden light.
At the very top of the staircase, waiting, was my shorts.
They were beckoning me hither with one flap of a cargo pocket.

(Sorry everyone. That’s the last on the shorts)

Eulogy for a Pair of Shorts

I threw away my favourite pair of shorts today.
It was a sad day.
I wore them regularly and almost constantly for years. They started life as a brown/kaki colour but had faded to white. They had become threadbare and the hem had ripped in the wash but I managed to get another day’s wear from them on a recent bushwalk. The rip had expanded on the walk and they had become quite dirty and stained; another wash would have been unrealistically optimistic.
I loved those shorts.
They were bought from Target, in Lithgow. They were cargo style. They were on sale at almost half price which immediately made them cherished by a boy whose sensibilities are defined by the Maltese frugal gene.
They had pockets everywhere.
They were a faithful accomplice. Even when past girlfriends hated them, they loyally soldiered on. They suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous female derision but continued to serve me well.
They outlasted relationships.
They stuck by me during fluctuations of belly fat. They travelled with me from Australia to Malta and back again, several times.
Sadly, they won’t accompany me to Malta this year.
I couldn’t bear to part with them in the end and they sat on the dinning room table for four days before I had the fortitude to put them in the wheelie bin. I felt dirty. I felt like a monster.

I said a few words.
Farewell old friend. Until we meet again, in shorts heaven 😞

One

Stories My Parents Told Me

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 and 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. He did not feel as though he was obsessive, just very observant. And self-disciplined. He also liked to be in control. Sometimes that combination did not work too 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…

View original post 406 more words

Audiobook Sample

OUT SOON: The audiobook edition of MUSINGS AND MUTTERINGS OF A MALTESE MISANTHROPE by @RupertCGrech. It will be available at Amazon, iTunes, Audible. #Malta #audiobooks #humor #satire

Michael Barclay

The funeral was a quiet affair. His family was there, of course. And some local dignitaries, although he would have been disappointed that more of his colleagues and high ranking Department of Education officials were not present. It was a cool but sunny and frosty morning in this mid-sized, historic country town. People were milling around the outside of the old sandstone church with the tall steeple in that awkward way that they do at funerals. There were several men in similar dark suits. Some greeted one another with half-smiles while a few stood at the periphery and sporadically glanced at their wristwatches. The Area Director was there and gave de facto apologies for the Regional Director to the widow, at his first opportunity.  Then he slipped away.

Michael Barclay had died after recently achieving his long term career goal of being appointed as the principal of the better high school in a desirable town.  He was relatively young to have achieved such a position.Michael Barclay was a man in his early forties but his boyish looks made him seem even younger. He was of medium height, slim, had very straight blond hair that was parted on one side and wore large, square, black-rimmed glasses. He could have been accurately described as reasonably handsome in a “nerdy” type of way. The sort of appearance common in photographs displayed in the window of optometrist studios.

Michael Barclay rose quickly through the ranks of teacher, head teacher and deputy principal to eventually be a school principal. He was popular with his superiors at every stage of his career and he was earmarked early on by his colleagues as someone who would advance to a high level. He had the presence of mind to remain calm and speak positively no matter what demands were made of him. Even if expectations from his immediate supervisor were unrealistic, unreasonable or unfair, he would nevertheless agree. He never complained about or disparaged anyone or showed genuine displeasure. He was extremely considered, never spoke spontaneously and knew just what to say to please his bosses. David was well known for never arguing against or criticising any Department of Education policy or new instruction that was announced. Even when others would groan at the ever increasing accountability, responsibility and paperwork demanded year after year, he would keep quiet in regional school principals’ meetings and not join in with his colleagues when they complained, unless he felt that he was noticed for his lack of concern. Then he would affect some mild form of annoyance and support for his colleagues. He was never negative about anything or anyone in public and he knew that this was highly respected and valued by those who could assist his career. He would wearily offer to take on more duties even when told he was spreading himself too thinly. His supervisors found him to be reliable and easy to get on with. Even when he made an effort to be mildly critical in order to appear passionate about something, he would do it in such a way that his concerns sounded complimentary to his supervisors and positive in terms of the confidence he had in them. It always reflected well on him when he did this. Females in high ranking positions especially admired him. He came across as a somewhat gentle and emotional man who always deferred. The type that you would sympathise with because he might easily be bullied. He was no threat to anyone.

Michael Barclay would always start a conversation with someone of a higher position to himself by asking after their family and had trained himself to remember the names of partners and children.  He never refused or even hesitated when asked to take on tasks that were unpopular, from those above his employment rank. He had even completed a short stint at a very troublesome school with a high proportion of indigenous students in an isolated and disadvantaged area that no one else wanted to take on. He implemented Department of Education polices that were required without making much of a difference to how the school operated and initiated innovations that appeared to be politically correct but that had little real effect. He managed to administer the school with a minimum of bad publicity for two years after which he had applied, and was successful in, gaining a position somewhere more favourable; for the sake of his family, even though he told those around him that he would much prefer to stick it out at the difficult school in the unpopular town. The Reginal Director understood and recommended him for the more favourable position in return for what he considered a job well done.

Michael Barclay had meticulously choreographed a stellar rise to the top. His calculating and immaculate behaviour gave rise to a variety of responses from his male colleagues ranging from mild amusement to simmering resentment. Female colleagues universally venerated him. Sometimes he would be chaffed by his male colleagues during social occasions associated with conferences and regional meetings. During those times he might be referred to by various unflattering nicknames as  “golden boy” or “the chosen one”, at which times he would join in the banter and laugh along. Sometimes, just a little too loudly. At one social occasion he stood beside his Area Manager who was making lewd comments about an attractive female principle while watching her on the dancefloor. And laughed a little too sleazily.

At a dinner after one regional principals’ conference, Michael Barclay manoeuvred his way to the main table and sat opposite the Minister of Education. After exchanging pleasantries and asking after the minister’s wife and children, he opened the conversation with:

“I’m really enjoying the challenge of being the principal of an older and experienced staff”.

This was code for saying that he was successfully dealing with staff intransience. He pretended not to notice the wry smile on the face of a colleague who was sitting next to him and ignored the contemptable sigh of another who was close by and decided to get up and move from the table.

Leanne Hazel was a high school student of fifteen with the full figure of an athletic young woman. She had orange-red hair and an angular, thin nose on a freckled face with small eyes that looked slightly oriental. The almond shape of her eyes was enhanced by dark eyeliner and light blue eyeshadow that flashed bright when she blinked. She wore a body-hugging, white school blouse, left unbuttoned at the top and a tight fitting blue tartan short skirt. Her young body was firm and round and her legs were strong and shapely. Leanne Hazel walked the school grounds with a confidence that said she both knew and understood her attraction to males. She seemed a troubled child who often got into fights with other girls and into conflict with her teachers. Leanne had been suspended several times and was proving to be a bad influence on other girls who looked up to her as a role model. The Deputy Principal decided that it was time to refer her to the Principal.

The first time she attended the principal’s office was with her mother for a special return from suspension meeting. Leanne had earlier been reported to the Deputy Principal by her English teacher for repeated and inappropriate language in class of a sexually explicit nature. The DP had suspended her for three days. Leanne’s mother confided in Mr. Barclay that she was extremely concerned about her daughter’s increasingly wild behaviour, especially with older boys. The Principal noticed that Leanne’s mother wore a very low cut blouse that displayed a significant part of her breasts and wore similar eye makeup to what Leanne did. Mr Barclay warned Leanne and her mother that Leanne was heading for expulsion from the school if her poor behaviour continued and that her future success in life would be subsequently compromised.

Mr Barclay had a heart-to-heart talk with Leanne after her mother left his office. The talk seemed to register positively with her. It was the first time in Leanne’s life that an older male had shown such a caring and considerate attitude to her. He spoke of his own family, his wife and especially of his teenaged daughter and his hopes for her future. Leanne told Mr Barclay all about her ambition to become an actress. Mr Barclay had seemed genuinely interested in and supportive of the idea, in contrast to the derision expressed by her mother over the subject. He let Leanne know that his door was always open to her if she needed to talk to him but that she had to change significantly or she would have to leave the school. He said that he would speak to her again soon.

The occasional chats between Mr Barclay and Leanne in his office seemed to have a positive effect on the girl. She stopped wearing so much makeup to school and started to wear longer skirts and more modest blouses. She managed to stay out of trouble in the playground and behaved better in class without causing too much fuss, as long as her teachers did not challenge or confront her. Teaching staff were instructed by Mr Barclay to avoid conflict with Leanne. The regular conflicts with her teachers almost completely disappeared. The unthinkable happened and she even started to have a positive influence on other girls in her year group. Leanne’s mother, the DP and her teachers were amazed at her transformation and were very pleased. Everyone gave the credit for the change in Leanne’s behaviour and attitude to Mr Barclay, his personal interest in the girl and their private chats. Mr Barclay’s reputation was enhanced.

Occasionally, Leanne would become agitated over something that happened in the playground or in class and ask for a chat with the principal after which she would always seem calmed, settle back down and continue with her positive behaviour. Then, one afternoon, while in tears, she asked to see Mr Barclay and had a long meeting in his office that lasted several hours, from the end of the lunch break all the way to the final school bell.

The next day Leanne turned up for school at her regular time. She was wearing heavy eye makeup, a tight blouse that was unbuttoned from the top that exposed the top of her breasts and her old, tight short skirt.

Mr Barclay did not attend school that day.

Michael Barclay was found by his wife hanging from a rope around his neck in the garage of their home.

Il-BULI tal’ HAMRUN (The Bully of Hamrun)

Everyone who lived in the vicinity of Hamrun around the time of the Second World War feared and avoided the man nicknamed “Iszus”- including the local police. Most people were terrified of him. Many people detested him. Some secretly fêted him. But all knew of his infamy.

Hamrun at that time was a poor, tough, working class town. It lies about three kilometres further along the conurbation that spreads south-west along the main road from the capital city, Valletta, past the historic town of Floriana and past the area known as Blata L-Bajda (white rock). The locality mainly consists of small flats and maisonettes housed in small, two or three story buildings of very similar appearance that are attached to each other, side-by-side. The whole area known as Hamrun is around one square kilometre in area and around the time of the Second World War the municipality boasted 2 churches along with several smaller chapels, 2 band clubs, a police station at the piazza and a bustling High Street lined with shops, bars and cafes.

The people of Hamrun have an interesting traditional nickname.

Nicknames are popular and ubiquitous in Malta, probably because of the severely limited number of surnames and Christian names in circulation in the past (as recently as 2014, the most popular 100 surnames accounted for 75% of the population). Nicknames are assigned not only to individuals and families, but also to populations of entire suburbs, villages and towns. Possibly stemming from the fact that many men from Hamrun worked as stevedores on the nearby docks and carried a knife to work, or perhaps in reference to the community of Sicilians who settiled there illegally in the 16th century, the people of Hamrun are nicknamed Tas-Sikkina (literally meaning, “of the knife”) or Ta’ Werwer (which literally means “of those who scare”).

Perhaps the all-time scariest of them all was a large man in his forties with slightly greying hair known as Iszus, nicknamed after the all-powerful Greek god of thunder, king of all the gods.

Iszus was a huge and powerfully built man who towered over his compatriots. Well over six feet tall, muscular and barrel-chested, he resembled the archetypal 19th century circus strongman. He walked with the slow, open gait of a dominant alpha-male. He always wore a traditional cloth cap and did not wear a normal collared shirt but instead, preferred a flannelette, sleeveless, button-less shirt that accentuated his powerful arms. It was said that there was no normal shirt that would fit him properly.

Iszus always had plenty of money even though he never seemed to have a job. He wore heavy gold chains around his neck as he roamed the streets of Hamrun during the day and night, terrorising residents as well as local businesses. He would often stroll into a café or bar, order a meal or drinks and after having his fill, leave without paying. If any owner dared to challenge him he would stare him down in a threatening way and order the foolhardy owner to put it on his tab- a tab that would never be paid. Iszus would do the same at family run grocery stores, fruit and vegetable barrows, the local barber and even lottery booths. Sometimes, he would stop people in the street and demand cash from them and there were times when he visited the home of people he hardly knew and demanded a loan of money that would never be repaid. People were too afraid to challenge him or report him to the police for fear of fierce retribution. Many had heard how violent he could become when angered and about the horribly brutal fights he had been involved in with other hooligans and bullies.

The most famous fight involving Iszus was with a dark skinned man from Valletta who was known as Paulo il-Tork (Paul the Turk). Paulo used to come to Hamrun on occasions stirring up trouble. Both men ended up in hospital with serious injuries after a long and vicious fistfight that lasted until both men were exhausted, bleeding profusely and held down by policemen. Both Iszus and Paulo needed to be taken to hospital for treatment after the fight.

There had always been a strong, traditional dislike between the men of Valletta and Hamrun due to the visceral rivalry between their respective football teams. The hapless Paulo was later involved in another incident in Hamrun the day after the feast, one August. After an altercation with members of a gang of thugs that included the brother of Iszus and whom were referred to as “il-Halliga”, Paulo il-Tork was chased down the streets of Hamrun until he slipped and fell, smashing his head against the pavement and dying of a fractured skull- or so the story was told.

The only respite enjoyed by the local community from the appalling behaviour of Iszus was during regular but brief periods of his incarceration. Inevitably, he would fall foul of the local constabulary who would periodically lock him up for short stretches, much to the relief of the community. Once released however, Iszus would continue with the intimidation and standover tactics that made him infamous far and wide. Each time he was arrested, it would take three or four burly and brave policemen to overpower him in order to apprehend him. This provided a deterrent to the police who, just like everyone else, were daunted by his strength and violent nature. The hesitation of the police with regard to Iszus subsequently resulted in relative impunity for the self-confident thug. Iszus seemed to get away with a lot more than others in the community as the police tended to turn a “blind eye” to his bad behaviour in order to avoid him. The reluctance of the police to engage Iszus only served to embolden him further, much to the chagrin of his sufferers.

A young boy from Marsa named Harry was walking along the High Street in Hamrun one sunny morning in June when he spotted Iszus on the other side of the street walking in the opposite direction. Iszus stopped and began to harass a karozzin driver who was standing beside his horse and carriage, waiting for fares. The driver was backing away and obviously intimidated by the grinning bully who was enjoying throwing his weight around. Like all bullies, Iszus could easily sense fear in others and delighted in the anxiety he caused his victims. It gave him the feeling of power and control that he found so gratifyingly intoxicating. Iszus also knew that demonstrations of his cruelty along with displays of fear towards him in public enhanced his reputation and power over the community. Laughing out aloud, Iszus stepped up to the average sized horse and planted his feet firmly apart immediately in front of it. He then bent his knees, assumed a slightly crouched position similar to that of a boxer and with all of his strength and weight behind him, swung an almighty punch into the chest of the unfortunate animal.  The sickening slap-thud made by the heavy contact of the man’s bare fist against the smooth, dense flesh of the horse could be heard over the street noise by Harry from the other side of the main road. The solid punch felled the ill-fated horse on the spot and it dropped to the ground in a heap as though it had been shot. Iszus walked away with a self-satisfied, confident swagger.

The horse could not be revived. It had suffered a heart attack from the physical shock of the blow to the chest and was dead.

Iszus regularly used the annual feast in Hamrun, the feast of San Gejtanu on the first Sunday after August 7th, as a demonstration of his omnipotent power and influence. Following the traditional festive preliminaries, including noisy petards, fireworks and marches by the two local brass bands that occurred over the week before, the culminating procession would take place on the Sunday evening. Men who had successfully bid for the honour would carry the statue of San Gejtanu kneeling at the feet of the Madonna and Child, on a platform supported by timber beams across their shoulders. They would convey the platform supporting the statue in a procession from the parish church, through the neighbourhood streets and back again. The climax of the procession was when the men would take a short run-up, quickly stride up the substantial flight of steps at the entrance to the church and return the statue, inside. Just about the entire population of Hamrun would take part in the final procession behind the statue or would be out on the streets as spectators.

Each year towards the end of the pageant, Iszus would step out into the middle of the High Street, stop the leaders of the procession just before they reached the parish church and make them wait until he placed a gold chain over the head and around the neck of the statue of the Madonna. It was his way of usurping proceedings. No one dared to question his right to stop and delay the solemn activities with his theatrics.

There was one famous procession that passed through Hamrun towards the end of the war in1944 when Iszus managed to thrust himself onto the national stage and into nationwide consciousness.

The heavy bombing Malta experienced during the first half of WWII was concentrated around the dockyards of the Grand Harbour and spilled over into neighbouring towns. One town that suffered greatly due to its proximity to Dock No.1 was Cospicua, one of the ancient Three Cities of the harbour area. The frequent air raids convinced the Cospicua parish church authorities to seek permission to move their prized statue of the Immaculate Conception along with the large titular painting to the outlying town of Birkirkara, in order to protect them in the event that the church was damaged or destroyed. Miraculously, the parish church was one of only a handful of buildings in the central area of Cospicua that survived intact. After the Allied capture of Italy in September of 1943 brought the relentless bombing raids to an end, it was decided to complete the necessary religious formalities and make plans to bring both treasures back.

On the morning of November 19th, 1944, most of the good people of Cospicua had gathered in the main square of Birkirkara as part of a procession to respectfully accompany the statue and painting back to their rightful home. News of the pending ritual had spread by word of mouth across the entire island nation and the people of Cospicua were joined by thousands of others from all over the country. The event had become something of a national celebration and an expression of gratitude to the Virgin Mary for delivering Malta from the war. The enduring church at Cospicua had become a metaphor for the survival of the nation. All along the route between Birkirkara and Cospicua, the windows of dwellings were decorated with banners, framed holy pictures and flowers. Town bands from all over Malta joined the procession that was launched by the ringing bells of the parish church of Birkirkara.

The multitudinous procession slowly made its way down the High Street from Birkirkara accompanied by the music of brass bands. After proceeding for some time, the head of the procession led by the statue of Our Lady held aloft on the shoulders of honoured men, reached alongside the front steps of the parish church of Hamrun. All of a sudden, a huge man in a traditional cloth cap and sleeveless, button-less flannelette shirt strode out into the middle of the High Street and stopped the procession by raising his arms above his head and holding up the palms of his hands in a “stop” gesticulation. It was Iszus. He motioned to the men holding up the statue of the Immaculate Conception to lower the platform. Surprised and confused, the men who were now confronted by this imposing hulk of a man complied, lowered the platform and rested it onto the ground. Iszus pulled out a heavy gold chain from his pocket and placed it over the Virgin’s head and around her neck, then moved away to the side of the road. The men once again picked up the timber beams that supported the platform and statue, rested the beams on their shoulders and the procession recommenced its journey to Cospicua. The remarkable incident was publicised in all the newspapers of the time and Iszus became a nationally celebrity.

The end of the man known as Iszus came as a surprise, some years later. And at the hand of an unlikely protagonist.

Iszus had terrorised the timid owner of a local Hamrun café for years. Ordering food and drinks the cost of which he demanded be placed on a tab that was never paid, as was his modus operandi. The owner of the café was a very small, slightly built man who was by no stretch of the imagination a physical match for the domineering bully. Iszus saw his victim as no threat at all, even comical, when the inconsequential little man repeatedly requested payment. The tension had been building up for a long time when one day, the café owner psychologically snapped. He surreptitiously tiptoed up behind Iszus as he was leaving his café without paying for the umpteenth time and softly called out his name:

“Iszus”.

The big man turned around and looked over the top of the diminutive owner’s head. The café owner then plunged a knife upwards, deep into the bully’s chest. The astonished Iszus gasped. With wild eyes, mouth open and a bewildered expression on his face, Iszus looked down searchingly into the face of his tiny assassin for a brief instant then lowered his gaze further and observed the knife sticking out of his body. His eyes slowly rolled back into his head and Iszus collapsed onto the floor. The bully of Tas-Sikkina was dead.