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 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.