Introduction to the story, “Il-Pupa” (The Doll)

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[1], 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 Marija Laudina Bugeja[2]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 Kavallierias 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 was characterised 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, with the assistance of a Maltese uprising, booted out Napoleon’s military forces after their brief but unpopular two-year occupation. The new addition to the Empire was administered by British officials and public servants while it 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. 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 to play with.


[1]Pronounced “Hum-rune”.

[2]Pronounced “Boo-jay-ah”.

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