l-Anglu Taghna (Our Angel)

The Bugeja family had as rough and as deprived an existence as any in the working class suburb of Hamrun during the worst months of the 1942 siege of Malta. The fact that there were two adults and ten children to feed during those difficult times made it literally a hand-to-mouth way of life. Money was tight for the large family as the patriarch, Dionisio, had lost his job at the hospital in the neighbouring suburb of Gwardamangia. Food was scarce and expensive as AXIS warplanes and submarines ruthlessly attacked every naval convoy that was carrying food, military and medical supplies on their way to the Mediterranean archipelago, in the hope of starving and depriving the strategic British outpost into surrender.
The matriarch, Lucia Bugeja, despaired at the lack of food for her children. During the worst days of 1942, ration coupons provided only a chunk of bread and a ladle of soup for each child as their main daily meal. Lucia could only supplement her children’s diet during the rest of the day with another chunk of bread smeared with lard or a tomato sliced in half and sprinkled with salt and pepper, at the times when hunger became unbearable.
Lucia’s children were desperate for anything to eat. First thing every morning at the Hamrun Elementary School, young children would line up with a spoon they carried with them from home and be served a dose of cod-liver oil to improve their health. The children were then given a small biscuit to help take away the unpleasant fishy taste. The tiny nine year old Clotilde Bugeja (nicknamed “Pupa”- the Maltese word for doll) would be one of the first in the queue to receive the offering then sneak back in, unnoticed, towards the end of the line and suffer the disgusting aftertaste of the cod-liver oil all over again in order to receive another tiny biscuit.
The rent for the three room, first floor flat in Maitland Street that the Bugeja family called home was meagre but Dionisio and Lucia struggled to keep up with the monthly payments. Pupa was entrusted to walk to the landlord’s house every month with the one pound five shillings rent held tightly in her hand. She would walk the two kilometres to an address in Floriana, ring the doorbell, hand over the rent to the landlord and then walk the two kilometres back to her modest home in Hamrun.
The rent, along with other living expenses, was earned through both parents providing the rather incongruous combination of private nursing and undertaking services. Dionisio had worked for a time in a nearby hospital as a lay nurse and had trained his wife, Lucia, in the skills needed to attend to patients’ minor needs such as bathing and dressing wounds, administering injections and providing basic medical advice. As a sideline, Lucia also performed midwifery services to local women. Both practitioners were highly regarded and trusted by their neighbours who admired the couple’s medical knowledge. They were also called on by locals to prepare deceased relatives for burial by bathing and dressing the bodies of their dear departed, along with procuring flowers, engaging the priest for the graveside service and organising horse drawn transport for the coffin to the cemetery.
One particular patient attended to by the well-respected nursing couple proved to be a godsend and saviour to the beleaguered family towards the end of the WWII siege. A specialist medical practitioner had recommended Dionisio and Lucia to a wealthy landowner from the small farming village of Naxxar who was in need of nursing support. In keeping with the strong Maltese tradition of assigning nicknames, partly due to the necessity for distinguishing between namesakes within the limited number of names commonly used on the island, this middle-aged man had been known as “Chupa” ever since he was a boy.
Chupa was a tall, impressive looking man with a strong physique, fair hair and a big, bushy, blonde moustache. The wealthy widower who had only one grown-up, unmarried child– a daughter- was to become “Nannu (grandpa) Chupa” to the Bugeja children. Chupa was regarded as an affluent gentleman, a sinjur in Maltese, due to the stately house and large farming property he owned and occupied. He had suffered a serious infection to his foot which had necessitated some of his toes to be amputated. The doctor knew of the good reputation held by Dionisio and Lucia and recommended them for the cleaning and redressing of Chupa’s wound that was required three times per week.
Chupa, Dionisio and Lucia became friends easily. Over the first few weeks both Dionisio and Lucia took it in turns to travel to the verdant, rather prosperous village of Naxxar and both patient and nurses looked forward to the visits. The couple endeared themselves to the sinjur through their highly caring demeanour. When Dionisio introduced Chupa to his delightful young daughter, Pupa, the middle-aged gentleman farmer became besotted with the little girl, thereby involving him with the family even further.
Chupa’s farm was more than any ordinary property. It was more accurately described as an agricultural estate. The farm was expansive and virtually self-sufficient with acres of fields, vegetable gardens and orchards as well as livestock such as goats, pigs, chickens and rabbits. There was plenty to suggest that the sinjur, who did not have the expense of a large family to care for, was very well off. However, there was also suspicion that Chupa enjoyed more than normal income streams. Food products were very difficult to find in Malta at that time and prices had skyrocketed to exorbitant levels on the black market. The locals gossiped that Chupa seemed to be doing extremely well.
Every week or two Chupa would travel to the Bugeja’s home in Maitland Street, Hamrun, in a small wooden cart pulled by a miniature pony. He would pick up his favourite, Pupa, and one or more of her siblings and take them back to his farm in Naxxar for the day. At times he took up to four siblings in the cart. Children and parents alike looked forward to these visits for the largess that Nannu Chupa inevitably lavished on his guests.
Pupa was amazed on her first visit at the opulence of the farm and farmhouse in Naxxar.
On arrival, the cart was driven up to a tall stone wall and through a set of two huge, wooden entrance doors into a short tunnel which then opened up into a large cobblestone courtyard. Pupa looked up from the courtyard to see that it was surrounded on all sides by the high stone walls and windows of the sprawling farmhouse. Inside, the house was filled with heavy, antique furniture made from expensive timbers and decorated with inlays and carvings. Pupa had never seen a house so extravagantly well-furnished. Nor had she ever seen a dining table so long that it was matched with bespoke solid timber benches on both sides rather than chairs. Timber was such a rare and expensive commodity on the relatively denuded and ancient island nation of Malta that so much wooden furniture in one place made the young girl’s head spin.
Outside the house, the grounds were like a Garden of Eden to the poor girl from her town of concrete and bitumen. Rows of fruit trees of every description, crop fields and vegetable plots overflowing with leafy produce stretched on and on into the distance. Even the barns and stables were many times larger than the three roomed flat that Pupa, her parents and nine siblings called home.
The visits to Nannu Chupa’s farm were like spending time on another planet for the young Bugeja children; an escape from the 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; but only for fun. 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 Hamrun, he would enter a room within the house that was otherwise permanently locked and return with a sack 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 swing open a false wall and reveal a secret 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 wide-eyed, mouth agape and mesmerised by the unimaginable bounty. She would not have believed that there was as much food in all of Hamrun 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 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 tall, 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 a teenager and since then had dedicated her life to looking after her aging 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 inevitably 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 made a mess. 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 absolute fill and 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 from the kitchen. Constanza would then milk a goat directly into the glass tumblers until an enormous, full glass of fresh warm milk was obtained for each child. She would gather the glasses together in her big hands, 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 positively huge baking dish of imqarrun (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 repast. 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, Nestor. Nannu Chupa had picked up the two of them from Hamrun 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. That 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 Hamrun:
“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 Hamrun and go for a ride on a karozzin (traditional horse drawn carriage).”
“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. Nestor bought an entire boxful of assorted pasti and each child quickly scoffed down one of their choice. The next part of the adventure was a little more problematic.
Nestor 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.
Nestor spoke up to the driver in a tone more akin to a statement than a question and tried to sound very adult:
“Driver, can you take us to Sliema and back again, please.”
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 Hamrun be going to such a classy town? And why were they not taking a bus? He wondered.
“So, what are you two doing riding a karozzin to Sliema? Where are your parents? Do you have any money? He asked of the now nervous Nestor.
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 Nestor’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 and 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 Hamrun, Lucia was feeling worried as the children had never been so late returning from Naxxar.
For their part, Pupa and Nestor 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.
Nestor 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 for sending them home on the bus while 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 Nestor 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 the remorseful Pupa. Chupa reprimanded the two miscreants but showed his benevolence and compassion by never telling on them to their parents. It remained their secret.
***
Sadly, Nannu Chupa passed away barely two years after making first contact with Dionisio and Lucia. To the end of her days, Lucia would always refer to him as l-anglu taghna (our angel). The mother was eternally grateful to Chupa for feeding her children when they were hungry and helping her impoverished family get through the worst years of the War.
In keeping with the respect Chupa had for Dionisio and Lucia, the funeral preparations were left in their hands. Pupa was with a small group of mourners in Chupa’s bedroom the morning of the funeral and saw the renowned sinjur laid out on his enormous bed, wearing his finest clothes. Pupa was terrorised by Constanza one last time at that moment as the bereft orphan suddenly seemed to have lost her mind. In an unexpected emotional outburst, Constanza harnessed all the strength she possessed in both of her powerful arms, lifted the end of Chupa’s heavy wooden deathbed high off the ground and slammed it down onto the flagstone floor again and again while screaming “get up, Pa; get up, Pa” at her dead father. It took several startled onlookers some time to calm Constanza down, while the traumatized Pupa cowered in the corner of the bedroom, in tears.
Chupa’s funeral was famously grand and talked about in Naxxar for many years afterwards. It boasted the longest funeral procession ever seen in that small village. Apparently this highly respected and popular man had generously helped out many struggling families during the difficult years of the War.
Decades later, Nestor had married and was permanently in a wheelchair as a result of a motorcycle accident, when the adult Pupa visited him at his home 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 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.

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