The skinny boy with fair skin and high cheekbones had been christened Henry Joseph Grech but everyone called him Harry. It was not uncommon for Maltese parents to give their children English sounding names. The British had been the aristocrats and ruling colonialists on the island for almost one and a half centuries and they had immense influence over the locals, as well as their admiration.
L-Ingliżi, as the British were called, had been ensconced in Malta ever since ousting the forces of Napoleon after their brief but infamous two-year stay. Napoleon had effortlessly ended the 250-year rule of the unpopular and decadent Knights of Saint John, humiliating their last Grand Master in the process. But Napoleon’s stealing of treasures from the church, especially silver plate that he had melted down to pay his soldiers, and his harsh rule led the Maltese to request British military intervention. Nelson drove the thieving French out in 1800 after Maltese insurgents had recaptured most of the island and driven the main French garrison behind the ancient fortifications of Valletta and the Three Cities. The English reneged on an agreement to hand the island back to the Knights and remained in some capacity for 179 years. Great Britain finally granted Malta independence in 1964, although it was not until 1974 that Malta became a republic for the first time in her illustrious history. The British military did not leave the island until 1979.
Harry’s parents thought that English names carried more status or gravitas. The great leveller that children are, however, tended to deliberately reduce that gravitas by modifying the name to something more familiar and less formal. So, Henry became Harry, his youngest brother Winston became Willie and his oldest brother Edward became known as Eddie. Harry’s other brother Lewis was known as Lewie, whereas his sister Josephine was inexplicably nicknamed Jessie.
Harry was a frail, pale and sickly child. In fact, he did not start walking until he was almost three years old. There was a time when Harry’s parents thought that he might not live through his early childhood. Many relatives and neighbours agreed. Infant mortality was high in Malta and the deprivations associated with the war did not help health matters.
Harry and his siblings were evacuated from his parents’ house in the port suburb of Marsa during the worst of the bombing in the spring of 1942 because their house was only 100 metres from an anti-aircraft battery. This made the immediate area a target for the German Luftwaffe that were terrorising Malta at the time. All five children were taken by their mother to live with relatives in the rural atmosphere and relative safety of Malta’s sister island, Gozo. Such emigration created a gap in Harry’s schooling and upon his return to Marsa towards the end of the war, Harry stood out in his old primary school because of his age. Being 14 years old in the fourth grade was very awkward for the self-conscious adolescent. Harry was not a tall child, but he still had trouble fitting his legs under the tiny, primary school desks. The final embarrassment and indignity came when his teacher sent Harry from class and told him not to return to school until he had shaved. He went home that day but never returned.
Understandably, Harry was not too keen on school during his limited schooldays. He was never to be seen with his sister, Jessie, and other local children sitting under the wrought iron lanterns of the piazza in Ħamrun of an evening, taking advantage of the strong light to do their homework. In fact, Harry did not have a very good attendance record at school during the day, either. Harry and his close friend, Leli, would sometimes get into mischief during self-gazetted holidays in the dying months of the war.
The AXIS had successfully blockaded Malta in 1942 so that food was in very short supply and the population were existing on meagre rations. One time, the boys’ hunger drove Harry and Leli to hatch a daring plot to obtain food from the hospital ship anchored in the Grand Harbour. They decided to swim out to the converted ocean liner and climb up its long anchor chain. Once on deck, they would find the kitchen where meals were prepared and either steal or beg for food, depending on which opportunity presented itself. Amazingly, the barefooted boys made it up the long chain to the bough of the ship without being detected and silently crept along the deck sniffing for the kitchen. They got surprisingly close before they were spotted by the cook. Brandishing a large meat cleaver in his hand and waving it over his head, the cook immediately rushed after the two would-be pirates, yelling that the ship was in quarantine and something about typhoid still being on the island. Both boys were so terrified that they took their lives into their hands, jumped over the side railing and leaped off the ship into the water tens of metres below.
Another time, Harry and Leli decided not to answer the call of the frequent air raid siren and move to the safety of the bomb shelters. Instead, the boys waited in excited anticipation for the inevitable siren to announce the next air raid then hid on the rooftop of an apartment building in Marsa, overlooking the Grand Harbour. There, they watched the military spectacle in living colour. Apart from the obvious threat of the bombs and flying shrapnel, this strategy was even more dangerous as it was the low-flying, German Messerschmitt that carried out the sorties. The Messerschmitt pilots were infamous on the island for strafing any sign of life with their machine guns, including children.
It certainly was an awesome show for two young schoolboys. The planes flew in low formation as their bombs smashed the port infrastructure in a cacophony of smoke, flames and debris as the antiaircraft guns kept up a constant barrage. At times, the boys could even see the faces of the fearless German pilots through the glass cockpits as they flew low over the rooftops.
All of a sudden, one of the higher-flying planes was hit by anti-aircraft flak. It soon became engulfed in thick smoke and was in steep descent when the pilot finally baled out. Unfortunately for the hapless German, his parachute was caught by the trailing tail of the aeroplane and the boys watched in awe as it dragged the pilot down to his death, punctuated by a fiery explosion when the aeroplane hit the ground.
The boys also liked to play tricks on hapless adults during their days off from school, just for the fun of it. An example was the time Harry and Leli thoroughly annoyed a cranky old man who lived alone further down the road from where Harry lived. The boys had somehow acquired a long roll of fishing line and they decided to attach one end of the line to the old man’s brass doorknocker. They hid around the corner and tugged on the invisible line causing the doorknocker to announce the arrival of a non-existent guest. The cranky old man was bemused the first time this happened. Each time the doorknocker was pulled and the man opened the door to an empty flagstone, the angrier he became. Even when he stood by the front door and opened it as soon as he heard the knocking, the old man could not catch the nimble pranksters. The mutterings grew louder and by the time they became shouts of swear words and threats of bodily harm, the boys were in tears of laughter. Until the butt of their joke noticed the fishing line and followed it to their hiding place.
One Sunday after Mass and after leaving church, Harry peered over the stone wall of the priest’s rectory.
“Leli, take a look at this. Do you see what I see?”
“What do you mean? I can only see the back veranda of where the priests live.”
“And what do you see growing around the veranda?”
“Oh . . . yes!”