Still More Harry

A short time after the war and when Harry was around 14 years of age, an uncle gave the boy a couple of driving lessons. This gave Karmenu an idea on how to make some money.

The wily old grandfather knew of some men who owned a small boat and who smuggled barrels of wine into Malta from Sicily. He imagined that he could purchase some barrels of contraband wine and peddle the wine to the many bars and taverns all over the island at a bargain price, devoid of tax, and make a tidy profit. The owners of the establishments would be happy for the cheap wine along with the lack of records for the taxman and they would have their own bottles or containers for the wine.

Karmenu knew of an old Bedford, tabletop truck he could hire cheaply from a cousin. The cousin had inherited the vehicle but like Karmenu, could not drive. Now that Harry had benefited from driving lessons, Karmenu had a readymade partner in crime.

Karmenu had a small pile of cash hidden away in the house that Maria did not know about, saved from his grave and shelter digging days. This was just the opportunity he had been waiting for to utilise that stash and turn it into a small fortune. It also sounded good to young Harry because he liked the idea of being the driver in this intriguing scheme.

Karmenu settled on a price with the cousin and they picked up the truck.

It was in a state of disrepair with very sloppy steering and shoddy brakes that had to be pumped before they worked but both Karmenu and Harry were convinced that the beaten-up old heap would soon make them rich.

Karmenu purchased several barrels of wine from the smugglers and with Harry’s help, loaded the truck.

Harry’s driving was not competent nor experienced but he was careful and slow, rarely getting out of second gear all the way around the island to the various villages and towns. They started off early in the morning and emptied the last barrel of wine just as evening fell.

As Karmenu expected, the many tavern owners were very receptive. The trip was a great success and Karmenu had a nice, fat wad of pound notes in his pocket.

 The way back home was precarious. Not only did they have sloppy steering and shoddy brakes to contend with, but the headlights on the old bomb barely got above a mild glow. Karmenu and Harry were doing okay until they got lost somewhere outside the town of Mosta and noticed that they were also running out of fuel.

The massive church at Mosta boasts the third largest unsupported dome in Europe, after Saint Peter’s in the Vatican and Saint Paul’s in London. This church is renowned because on April 9th, 1942, a 500-kilogram bomb dropped from a German aeroplane had fallen through the roof of the church, skidded along the floor and came to a complete halt near the centre of the basilica without exploding[1]. During this event, not one person from a congregation of about 300 people was injured. This was generally regarded as a miracle and confirmation for the Maltese that God was on their side in the war. A replica of the bomb remains in a glass case at the back of the church and the repaired patch in the ceiling is still visible to this day.

Both the old man and the boy simultaneously made the sign of the cross as they passed the famous church.

A few miles further into the countryside and all of a sudden, coming up a narrow dirt road in the opposite direction, was an elderly farmer sitting sideways on an old wooden cart that was being pulled by a tall, skinny mule. Harry was driving the truck speedily in his enthusiasm to get home before dark and in the naïve hope of doing so before they ran out of fuel. Both Harry and Karmenu cried out:

“Ġesù Kristu!”[2]

Karmenu and Harry invoked the name of the Lord in unison as the old farmer, cart and mule gradually came into view through the soft light of dusk. There was no way both parties could pass abreast in this narrow street.

Harry slammed both feet hard on the brakes, nearly pushing the pedal through the floor and then pumped for his life. Karmenu leaned over and wrenched up the handbrake with all his might. They almost stopped in time.

The truck smashed one side of the cart into splinters while scraping the other side along a drystone wall then continued on, carrying the old farmer akimbo a few metres back along the wall. The mule ended up sitting on the road with its other half in the air pulled up by the front fork of the cart that was pointing to the sky, as the whole entourage came to a complete halt.

There was a moment of silence as the stunned farmer composed himself.

Swearing in Maltese, by the Maltese, is not pretty. It typically involves the Virgin Mary, other religious figures, mothers and often the Turks get a mention somewhere in there as well (the Maltese know how to hold a grudge). Karmenu desperately tried to calm the injured man down, but the farmer kept screaming for the police in between bouts of obscene abuse directed at the pair. With no licence, no vehicle registration, contraband wine and an underage driver, Karmenu and Harry were in deep trouble if the law ever became involved. They had to shut this crazy man up, somehow.

Karmenu panicked. He pulled the thick wad of pound notes out of his pocket and slapped it into the old farmer’s hand. The man’s eyes almost fell out of their sockets as he stared at the money and he abruptly fell silent.

“Here, this will buy you 10 carts, you old bugger!”

The trip home was taken in silence. The grandfather and the boy reached home physically shaken and broke. Karmenu sadly nodded to Maria on their return to the house in Birkirkara.

Where have you two been all this time?”

Karmenu walked off slowly in dejected silence without answering. Harry went off to bed early.

****

Harry – my father – visited his elderly nannu to say goodbye just before his new bride, Clotilde, and himself immigrated to Australia. Karmenu was now a very old man and not in good health. Karmenu still felt much attached to the grandson he had helped raise from childhood and knew that this would be the last time he would see him. A month-long voyage by sea to the other side of the world to start a new life was regarded as most final in those days. The impoverished old man had nothing to offer the young husband for his new life’s journey, but a used woollen blanket. My father suspected that the blanket was his grandfather’s only spare and tactfully declined to take it.

The old man’s heart was broken and he cried as he watched his beloved, young accomplice walk out of his life forever.


[1] https://bit.ly/2SbmVvq

[2] Maltese for “Jesus Christ”

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