Il-Pupa (The Doll)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a moment’s silence. Pupa wasdefeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“NO”.

He released the shocked boy and calmed down.

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

Dionisio remembered the doll in Giuliano’s shop.

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

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

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

His sight seized on the green figurine.

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

Giuliano relented.

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

No one knows what became of the small green figurine.

 

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