Adventures of “Pupa”

The visits to Nannu Chupa’s farm were like spending time on another planet for the young Bugeja children; an escape from their 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. 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 Ħamrun, he would enter a room within the house that was otherwise permanently locked and return with a bag 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 reveal an 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 incredulous, mouth agape and mesmerised by the unimaginable cornucopia. She would not have believed that there was as much food in all of Ħamrun 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 secret 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 thickset, 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 only a youngster and since then had dedicated her life to looking after her 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 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 left a mark.  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 fill. 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 and a tray from the kitchen. Constanza would then milk a goat directly into the glass tumblers until a large, full glass of fresh warm milk was obtained for each child. She would gather the glasses together onto the tray, 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 huge baking dish of imqarrun[1] (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 spread. 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, Nesto. Nannu Chupa had picked up the two of them from Ħamrun 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. It 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 Ħamrun:

“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 Ħamrun and go for a ride on a karozzin.”

“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. Nesto bought an entire boxful of assorted pasti and each child quickly scoffed down one of their choice and washed it down with a soft drink. The next part of the adventure was a little more problematic.

Nesto 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.

Nesto spoke up to the driver in a confident tone of authority and tried to sound very adult:

“Driver, please take us to Sliema and bring us back again.”

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 Ħamrun be going to such a classy town? And why were they not taking the much cheaper bus? He wondered.

“So, what are you two doing riding a karozzin to Sliema? Where are your parents? Do you have the money? He asked of the now nervous Nesto.

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 Nesto’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 that was pulled by a beautiful jet-black horse, 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 Ħamrun, Lucia was feeling worried as the children had never been so late returning from Naxxar.

For their part, Pupa and Nesto 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.

Nesto 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 sending them home on the bus even though 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 Nesto 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 a remorseful and tearful Pupa. Chupa reprimanded the two miscreants severely but showed his benevolence and compassion by never telling on them to their parents. It remained their secret.

****

Decades later, Nesto had married and was living in his own house with his wife and several children. He had become a paraplegic and was permanently in a wheelchair as a result of a motorcycle accident, when the adult Pupa visited him 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 so sadly 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.



[1] Pronounced “im-un-rune”

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