Introduction to the story L-GĦARUSA* (The Fiancée)


Lucia was a little surprised at the newfound enthusiasm her 18-year-old daughter, Amalia, showed to hang out the washing to dry on their small balcony. It seemed that she was in such a hurry to take down one load of clothes and hang up the next lot that occasionally, the clothes from the preceding load had not yet dried completely. Strange, but Amalia always had a smile on her face when she returned and seemed to have lost her urgency, until her sisters finished washing the next load. 

The small apartment around the corner from the piazza in Ħamrun took up the middle layer of a narrow, three storey building that was sandwiched between other buildings of the same type and age. In fact, the entire street was crowded with apartment buildings with only small variations in appearance or colour. The whole working-class suburb of Ħamrun was made up of similar streets containing similar blocks of flats. It was not until you walked down to the piazza and onto the High Street that the view opened up and the ambiance changed appreciably. Nevertheless, people who lived in the apartments took pride in the appearance of their building and tried to differentiate their apartments with ornate, brass doorknockers or a splash of colour on the heavy, wooden, front doors. The women who lived in ground floor apartments could be seen each morning on their hands and knees with their scrubbing brushes and their buckets of soapy water that smelt of disinfectant, washing the front door step and patterned tile floor of the vestibule of their building. The women who lived in higher level apartments dutifully scrubbed their sections of the internal flight of stairs and landing. The women engaged in this zealous ritual every morning partly for self-gratification and partly for status, for it served not only as an important part of their identity as women, but also avoided the serious shame that would have befallen them from being gossiped about as being unclean or lazy. 

Amalia was an attractive young woman with deep, dark burgundy coloured hair that looked black until it was lit up by the intense Maltese sun. She had the “skin of milk and honey” that her female Phoenician ancestors were famous for and the high cheekbones of her mother. The narrow, scattered band of tiny brown freckles over her nose and the top of her cheeks suggested the influence of a fair-haired relation in the distant past, while her sensitive dark green eyes contributed to her arresting, shy smile. Amalia had a demure habit of tilting her head slightly whenever she smiled and glancing upwards, almost apologetically. Her calm, unpretentious nature both complemented and enhanced her natural beauty. All six of Lucia’s girls were pretty, but as the eldest Amalia had developed into something more. She was special to Lucia because after three infant deaths, Amalia was her first child to survive past the first few years of life. 

Amalia had been noticed by many of the local boys of Ħamrun. Her age, good looks and developing figure meant that her father, Dionisio, had to be particularly vigilant towards this daughter. He believed her to be immeasurably above the level of any local boy of their neighbourhood and he thought that her sweet nature made her vulnerable. His fierce reputation and persona had been enough to ward off the young men in the past, but lately Dionisio was feeling insecure about his eldest. 

Amalia was aware of being noticed. The trips to church and shopping were always crowded with siblings and parents, but the girl had noticed the boys looking at her and whispering to each other while smiling in a salacious way.

Amalia had also noticed a handsome boy of about her own age who lived in one of the apartments at the back of the building where she lived. He appeared to be different from the other boys in that he did not seem to go in for the staring, whispering and grinning, although she once caught him sneaking a peek at her during Mass. One sunny morning, Amalia was hanging out the washing when she saw the same handsome boy on one of the terraces that made up the maze of balconies to the rear of her family apartment. He smiled at her and waved. She smiled at him and waved back. The next day at washing time he was there again. Amalia and the boy exchanged smiles and waves once more. 

This behaviour continued for weeks until the couple felt a familiar ease with each other, even though they had never actually spoken. Over time, they managed to learn each other’s names and some other personal details from gossip with friends after Mass on Sundays. They also managed to exchange innocent little notes through willing accomplices. They eventually succeeded in chatting for a few minutes after mass on several occasions and were delighted by each other.

One day, the young man finally summoned up enough courage to actually knock at her family’s door. Earlier, he had waited for Dionisio to step out of the apartment and prayed that it would be Amalia who answered the door. 


*Pronounced “larh-ou-sa”.  

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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”.

Extract from the story “Grapes”

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!” 

Extract From the Latest Story- “Reunion and Salvation”

The war dragged on. It became even more miserable and even more desperate. In August 1942, Malta was down to only a week or two of remaining food supplies. People were starving and subsisting on one small meal a day. Regular bombing raids had reduced much of the built-up area around the Harbour and beyond to rubble and the NAZIS continued to torment the population with multiple daily air raids. It looked like they had no option but to capitulate and suffer a NAZI occupation, along with all the horrors they had heard about and learnt to associate with such a disaster. Surrender was imminent. Perhaps two weeks away, at most.

Then, one sunny Autumn morning, the girls heard a loud commotion outside in the street. People were shouting, laughing and singing. It was September 13th, two days before the feast of Santa Marija. Pupa and Christina went outside their building and out to the piazza of Ħamrun to see what all the commotion was about. It seemed that all the people of the entire suburb were outside of their homes and in the streets. People were crying and hugging one another as they rushed along the High Street towards the city of Valletta. The girls were swept along within the throng and moved down the street with the crowd. It was like a fantastic celebration the likes of which the girls had never seen. As they approached the stone bastions at Valletta, they saw a scene of mass hysteria with people standing on the ramparts cheering and waving. People were weeping with joy while waving flags.

The girls looked into the Grand Harbour to see three ships. They were the good ships Port Chalmers, Rochester Castle and Melbourne Star, three of the five surviving remnants of the convoy of food, medicines, ammunition and fuel codenamed “Operation Pedestal” but later renamed by the Maltese as the “Santa Marija Convoy.”  

Several previously attempted convoys and their precious cargoes destined for Malta lay on the bottom of the sea, intercepted by Axis fighter bombers and U-boats before they could reach Malta. In August 1942, the British decided to launch one last, desperate attempt to land a convoy of supplies to save Malta, and henceforth, the North African campaign of General Montgomery and the Allies. The convoy was ambitious and at the same time, audacious. It included 13 merchant ships and the fuel tanker Ohio, escorted by 44 warships, including two battle ships and three aircraft carriers.

Apart from the three merchant ships that sailed into the Grand Harbour on the 13th, the Brisbane Star, a fourth merchant ship, sailed in the next day. The day after that, the greatest prize of all, the tanker Ohio, limped into harbour half submerged from bomb damage. It was the 15th day of August- the Catholic fest day of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven, known to the Maltese as Festa Santa Marija.

The surviving vessels of the convoy had miraculously navigated through a tremendous onslaught from the Luftwaffe and endured multiple submarine attacks to travel from the Allied naval base at Gibraltar the 2,120 kilometres across the Mediterranean Sea all the way to the Grand Harbour, Malta. Some 53,000 tons of the original 85,000 tons of convoy supplies was at the bottom of the ocean along with nine of the merchant ships. The Ohio had 9,514 tons of fuel remaining from its original cargo of 13,000 tons.[1] One aircraft carrier, two light cruisers and one destroyer were sunk and over 500 men killed.[2] The supplies that did get through lasted until the end of 1942 and allowed the successful harassment of NAZI supply lines from Italy to Rommel in North Africa to continue while also facilitating the defence of the island.

***

During those miserable times for Christina, through the last stages of WWII, the only sibling that she felt showed her real compassion was her little sister, Pupa. Pupa was the one who welcomed her back into the family with open arms and the only one who seemed to understand how lonely and despairing she felt. On one particularly despondent occasion, Pupa went as far as to offer Christina some of her own meagre food rations in an attempt to stop her big sister crying.

The sisters almost died of typhoid while together in St. Luke’s hospital during the epidemic of 1942. They supported and encouraged each other from adjacent hospital beds with kind words and they built up a particularly strong bond.

Many years after the horrors of war were over, Christina married a very kind and gentle man who owned a small upholstering business in Ħamrun and who treated her like a queen. Cristina’s husband woke from sleep early each morning and would bring her breakfast in bed before he left for work each day. She was very happily married until a work-related disease involving toxic chemical use took her soulmate’s life too early. They had two children, a boy and a girl.

Pupa grew up to be a beautiful young woman, married a handsome man from Marsa and immigrated to Australia but the love between the two sisters never waned. Christina spoke to Pupa in Australia on the telephone every day in their later years. Their special bond remained rock solid for the remainder of their lives. The last time they saw each other Christina was aged 89 and Pupa was 84 years old. It was a sad and tearful final farewell at the Luqa airport departure lounge, Malta.


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

[2] https://bit.ly/2HMKyps

Harry and the Grapes

The physically challenged sacristan of the church was very proud of the luxuriant grapevine he had cultivated and trained over the veranda during recent years. The sacristan had managed to obtain a vine cutting from a famous vineyard and winery on the narrow road to the village of Marsaxlokk where he was from. That particular year the vine was laden with full bunches of young grapes ready for ripening. The sacristan lived only to impress and curry favour with his benevolent masters who had taken pity on the unpopular, unpleasant looking man. Even his own family in Marsaxlokk[1] could not stand his company for very long and his siblings disliked him in response to his cruelty towards them and his surly manner.

The man was a Quasimodo-type character, with a disposition that seemed to match his twisted limbs and bitter expression. Somewhat appropriately, he also looked after the morgue that was housed in the basement of the rectory.

Every Sunday after Mass, the boys would peer over the rectory wall to check on the progressive ripeness of the grapes growing around the veranda. Each week bunches grew fatter on the vine and looked softer in colour. It would not be long. The ripest grapes were just about ready for harvesting.

The sacristan was livid with rage when he noticed that the first bunch of grapes went missing. But he became even more furious when the next bunch vanished. All his hard work was being stolen right before his very eyes. Grapes were simply impossible to obtain for his priests during wartime Malta. The man had been eagerly looking forward to presenting his masters with the fruits of his labour and he craved the ebullient praise that would undoubtedly come his way.

The sacristan noticed that both bunches of grapes went missing sometime after early Mass on the last two Sundays. He decided to lie in wait the next Sunday morning. He would hide all day if necessary. As long as he could catch the despicable thieves of his precious grapes.

The next Sunday it was Harry’s turn to climb over the rustic drystone wall and reap the rich prize that awaited him. Meanwhile, Emanuel waited nervously on the other side. No sooner had Harry laid the first touch of his outstretched hand onto the plump bunch of fruit when the heavy, twisted arm of the sacristan slapped onto the back of Harry’s neck and grabbed him by his shirt collar. Harry shrieked. Emanuel ran away.

“Ha, Devil! I’ve got you, thief! You wicked boy. Now I’m going to teach you a lesson.”

The sacristan dragged the terrified boy across the veranda to the old rectory building and down the dark, stone stairway to the basement and morgue. During these days of bombings and typhoid epidemics, the rectory morgue was always crammed full of dead bodies waiting their turn for burial. He unbolted the latch, dragged open the heavy wooden door and threw Harry in. He slammed the door shut and locked it from the outside.

Harry turned as white as a ghost when he realised where he was. Some of the coffins were open and through the semidarkness, he was sure that he could see movement. Every now and then air escaped from one of the bodies resulting in wheezing, subhuman sounds in the dark. Sometimes, the tendons of one of the fresh bodies in the closed coffins would tighten, causing scraping and knocking against the wood or the weight of the corpse to shift, and the timber to creak. Harry could hear the scurrying of rats across the hard stone floor and the smell of rotting flesh filled his nostrils.

After about two hours, Harry heard the key being turned in the lock. The sacristan opened the door to the basement to find Harry hunched into a small, shivering ball with his hands cupped over his ears and his wet eyes shut tight.

“Ha, you evil devil! This will teach you not to steal from the church! You will surely go to hell where all thieves like you belong. Get out and you better not let me see you anywhere around here again!”

Harry’s father, Carmelo, was startled to see the ashen faced, red eyed, traumatised boy walking towards him. He had never seen Harry sob in the manner he did after the father asked him what had happened.

Carmelo was as unlike his small, skinny son as could be. His above average height and strong, barrel-chested build meant that he found work in the local constabulary and his work, by necessity, had taught him how to handle himself. Carmelo hurried over to the rectory. He leaped the drystone wall and marched up to the astonished sacristan who was on the veranda, tending to his vine. Laying both his powerful hands flat against the small man’s chest, Harry’s father slowly clenched his fists and gathered up the whimpering creature’s shirt in the process. He lifted the sacristan high off the ground by his shirtfront. Using both powerful arms and all his enraged strength, Carmelo slammed the little weasel against the timber door of the rectory while screaming obscenities about the sacristan’s mother and the Ottoman Turks. The irate father could have done some serious damage to both the sacristan and the door had not the priests inside the rectory heard the commotion. They stepped outside and implored Carmelo to stop.

The cruelty of the sacristan was the excuse the priests needed to dismiss the odious little man. His nasty reputation had cancelled out any potential prospects he may have had locally so he had to move away. The sacristan returned to his hometown in the south of the island.

Harry spent a lot of time in church that summer and there was a conspicuous change in his behaviour. He became an altar boy and eventually, with strong encouragement from his father, helped out for free around the rectory.

One oppressively hot summer day, while on a family outing to the seaside fishing village of Marsaxlokk, Harry noticed a small and familiar looking male figure on the side of the road. The little man was noticeably suffering in the intense heat while occupying a roadside stall outside the vineyard on the road to the village.

The sacked sacristan was selling grapes.


[1] Pronounced “Marsa-shlok”

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”

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”