Dionisio Bugeja’s oldest boy, Guido, was both excited and proud to be given the opportunity and responsibility of the task his father had offered him. The eldest son would be entrusted to take his father’s place on this occasion and sit with the dead man overnight, watching over the corpse for the grieving family.
The old man had died within a house on a nearby street and his family had asked Dionisio to carry out the usual funeral arrangements.
Apart from organising all the practical funeral logistics, one of the traditional responsibilities of il-keffien was to sit with the dead body overnight so that members of the family could try to sleep and be better prepared for the funeral the next day. It was traditional practice and also comforting for the relatives of the deceased to have their loved one watched over and not alone during the night before their burial.
The kudos of helping out his family was not the only reward the unemployed Guido was promised. Dionisio had generously offered the boy one pound in payment for the job.
Dionisio had realised that Guido was getting older and starting to think about girls. The money would come in very handy as it was traditional that males were expected to pay all expenses on dates and things like ice-creams, soft drinks and pastis added up in costs, not to mention admission fees for movies and dances.
Although the money sounded very attractive to the teenaged Guido, the thought of staying awake all night in someone’s living room with a dead body did not appeal to his youthful sense of exuberance. He decided to share his good fortune with his best friend, Woogie. They would spend the night with the corpse together and share the one pound payment between them. That way, both youths would be able to go out on the town together. The proposition was greeted with enthusiastic glee from Guido’s funny and entertaining friend:
“Hey, that’s great! We get to stay up all night and get paid for it!”
Woogie was about the same age as Guido but more extroverted. The nickname, “Woogie”, came from his love of Boogie Woogie music and his penchant for jitterbug dancing. He was considered a handsome boy who liked to wear his hair in the latest slick back style. Woogie was the life of any party and livened things up wherever he went but was gaining something of a reputation for being a little silly and immature, albeit in an endearing way.
There were times when adults would question his intellect. Some people even thought of him as a little “slow”.
The very mention of the name “Woogie” would never fail to bring a smile to people’s faces or produce a little chuckle. Guido thought that Woogie would be the perfect all-night companion for such a gloomy chore as his father had promised him. Dionisio was not so sure.
The son of a family friend, Woogie had been of some assistance to Dionisio once before.
Dionisio was lining up for the movie matinee at the Odeon Cinema in Ħamrun, just around the corner from the piazza, one Sunday afternoon when Woogie spotted him and decided to join him. They sat together in the theatre and watched a movie that included a scene featuring some rather energetic teenaged dancers. Dionisio was scandalised:
“Look at those girls! No modesty whatsoever. They dance like animals. How disgraceful. Their parents would be ashamed if they could see them.”
Woogie, being a devotee of such dancing- and girls- was a little offended:
“Oh yeah? You should see your own daughters on a Saturday night.”
Woogie had inadvertently incriminated two of Dionisio’s daughters, Joy and Gertrude, who had a habit of sneaking out of home on a Saturday night with a change of clothes in their bags to attend the regular dance at The Phoenicia Hotel in Floriana.
The girls were in big trouble when Dionisio got home that afternoon. The affair resulted in the girls being banned from leaving the house for any reason for an entire month.
Guido arranged for Woogie to meet him at the Bugeja family home in Maitland Street on the evening before the dead man’s funeral. They were to walk over to the deceased’s house after listening to last instructions from Dionisio. Dionisio trusted his son to be responsible but wanted to speak to Woogie before the job:
“I have told the son of the deceased that both of you will look after his father tonight. You are to stay awake. I don’t want any member of the family to come in and find you asleep and not watching over their beloved relative. At all times, you must be highly respectful, sensitive to the feelings of others and on your best behaviour. No laughing or joking or even smiling. Remember, the old man was loved by his family and they are in mourning, they don’t expect to see happy teenagers looking like they are having a good time in their house. Remember also that I have a good reputation to uphold.”
Woogie spoke up:
“Don’t worry, Dionisio. I will be very, very sad. Very sad… and have a terrible time. That’s for dead certain. Oh! Sorry. I mean yes…um…very, very sad. They will think my mother just died or something. Oh! No. No, You know what I mean…”
Dionisio rolled his eyes. Guido placed his hand gently on the arm of his blabbering friend:
“Woogie. Just shut up, will you. Don’t worry papa, I’ll look after him.”
Dionisio was nervous.
The pair walked over to the house at around 9 pm and used the brass door knocker to announce their arrival. They were greeted by the man of the house and ushered into the living room where the deceased was laying on a rickety old wooden divan. Woogie immediately lost his characteristic swagger. The exaggerated sombreness of expression he wore changed immediately to one of utter shock, his mouth fell open and his face drained of all colour on seeing the corpse of the old man. Guido gave Woogie a long stern look as if to pull him back into line. Guido had been relatively desensitised to seeing the dead from accompanying his father to funerals but Woogie had never seen a dead body before.
The dead man’s father looked at Woogie, then at Guido:
“Is your friend alright?”
“Yes. He will be okay. It’s his first time. I’ll be in charge. Everything will be fine”, offered Guido in a soothing tone.
“Well, then, I’ll be going to bed now. My wife has prepared some sandwiches and a thermos of tea for you. They are on the table. Thank you for watching over my father tonight.”
“You are welcome”, replied Guido piously. “We will pray for him. May he rest in peace”.
The man turned on a small lamp in the corner of the room for the boys, turned off the main light, and walked up the stairs to bed. The boys sat down on chairs that were placed directly opposite the dead body. A small wooden table sat between the two boys and the object of their mission, with a thermos, two cups and a plate with two sandwiches sitting on top of it. The only other furniture in the room was a sideboard against the end wall with an old wooden chiming clock on it.
Woogie looked around in the dark room for a minute and tried to avoid looking directly at the corpse:
“This is a bit spooky, isn’t it, Guido?”
“Don’t be silly, my friend. He’s dead. He can’t hurt you. Have a cup of tea and a sandwich.”
Woogie slowly poured himself out a cup of tea. Guido noticed that his hand was slightly trembling.
Guido took out some playing cards from his pocket that he had the foresight to bring with him.
“Here, Woogie,” said Guido. “I’ve brought some cards to pass the time. It will help take your mind off things.”
“But… would your father approve of that? Would that be disrespecting the dead? Would the dead man lying there be offended?”
“Offended? He’s dead, you idiot. How can he be offended?”
“Oh, I don’t know. But I’ve heard about spirits being offended and haunting people… Ok, I suppose you’re right”.
Guido moved the lamp onto the small table so that they could read the cards easier in the soft yellow light and they set themselves for a few hands of gin rummy.
Gradually, Woogie began to feel less anxious. Then he noticed that the light from the lamp was now shinning on the old man’s face from below. He turned his back to the corpse and concentrated on his hand of cards.
After a few of hours of playing cards both boys began to feel drowsy. They remembered Dionisio’s instructions to keep a watchful eye and not fall asleep but their eye lids were getting heavier and heavier. Finally, Guido could stand the sleep deprivation no more:
“Woogie, I can’t keep my eyes open any longer. I have to catch some sleep. You stay awake and in twenty minutes, wake me up. Then, I’ll stay awake and be on watch while you have a little nap. No one will know. Just check the time by the clock on the sideboard.”
“But what about what your father said? Wouldn’t that be disrespectful? We would offend the dead.”
“Offending the dead again! What is wrong with you, Woogie? Look it’s just for a few minutes each. Stop worrying so much. I’ll go first.”
Much to Woogie’s chagrin, Guido seemed determine not to take “no” as an answer. Guido lay down on the floor and closed his eyes before Woogie had time to argue. It only took a few minutes before Guido was sound asleep and quietly snoring. Woogie felt alone and became more anxious as time elapsed.
The minutes seemed to pass very slowly to Woogie. He tried not to look at the corpse in the dim light of the lamp so he found himself staring into the pitch dark of the rest of the room. All he could hear was the tick, tick, tick of the old clock. His mind started to wander and he could not help remembering ghost stories he had been told when he was younger. He thought he heard faint sounds from within the dark but he dared not wake Guido who he knew would be angry at him. Guido started praying to the Virgin Mary to make the night pass quickly as he became more and more stressed.
The body of the dead man had lay still on the old divan for several hours after his death and natural processes were taking effect. All of a sudden, a long puff of air escaped from the dead body, making a wheezing sound and the corpse shifted weight on the creaking divan. Woogie spun around in terror to face the old man’s corpse. Just then the old clock on the sideboard behind him chimed the hour. That was more than enough for Woogie. He jumped up out of his chair, yelling.
“He’s woken up! He has come back from the dead!”
He straddled the startled Guido on the floor, flung open the front door of the house and sprinted down the road shouting He’s woken up. He’s risen from the dead.
Woogie ran along the streets of Ħamrun to Dionisio’s house shrieking at the top of his lungs, announcing to the world that the old man had woken from the dead. He banged loudly on the front door to Dionisio’s building and woke the whole Bugeja household along with the residents of the other flats in the building. A shocked and dishevelled Dionisio stepped out onto the front balcony of his flat that overlooked the street just in time to see the traumatise Woogie yell out “He’s up. He woke up. The old man has risen from the dead!”, then immediately run away, presumably to the safety of his own home.
Dionisio quickly dressed and walked over to the house where Guido was now trying to calm an entire household including two adults and seven agitated children, some of whom looked angry, some of whom were crying, some of whom were comforting each other. Lights were on within houses all along the street and some people were peering through their windows.
Poor, unfortunate Guido took the blame for the disaster and was chastised by his father for taking on such an unreliable partner as Woogie.
Dionisio managed to placate the distressed family and the funeral proceeded the next day without any problems. Dionisio was too embarrassed to accept any fee from the family.
Woogie never lived down the dizastru totali. People who lived in neighbouring streets quickly learned what had happened and why they were so rudely awakened that infamous night. The incident did very little for Woogie’s gravitas but at the same time seemed to make locals consider him even more endearing and funny. He accepted the subsequent ribbing with good grace and humour. For a long time after the incident, Woogie would be teased on the street by people who would see him approaching and call out things like:
“Look out Woogie. He has risen. Praise be to God! Run for your life!”