I just had a msg from a very well known Maltese celebrity to say how much she enjoyed my first book (storiesmyparentstoldme.com). I sent her three new short stories and told her that I was considering putting out a second edition. She read them within a day or two and got back to me to tell me that she had enjoyed the stories very much. I asked her if she would mind if I quoted her and she offered to write “something elequent” for the back cover if ever I do put out a second edition. Much kindness from a very busy and extremely talented woman.
Dionisio Bugeja’s oldest boy, Guido, was both excited and proud to be given the opportunity and responsibility of the task his father had offered him. The eldest son would be entrusted to take his father’s place on this occasion and sit with the dead man overnight, watching over the corpse for the grieving family.
The old man had died in a house on a nearby street and his family had asked Dionisio to carry out the usual funeral arrangements. Apart from organising all the practical funeral logistics, one of the traditional responsibilities of il-keffien was to sit with the dead body overnight so that members of the family could try to sleep and be better prepared for the funeral the next day. It was traditional practice and also comforting for the relatives of the deceased to have their loved one watched over and not alone during the night before their burial.
The kudos of helping out his family was not the only reward the unemployed Guido was promised. Dionisio had generously offered the boy one pound in payment for the job. Dionisio realised that Guido was getting older and starting to think about girls and dances. The money would come in very handy as it was traditional that males were expected to pay all expenses on dates and things like ice-creams, soft drinks and pastis added up in costs; not to mention entrance fees for movies and dances.
Although the money sounded very attractive to the teenaged Guido, the thought of staying awake all night in someone’s living room with a dead body did not exactly appeal to his youthful sense of exuberance. He decide to share his good fortune with his best friend, Woogie. They would spend the night with the cadaver together and share the one pound payment between them. That way, both youths would be able to go out on the town together. The proposition was greeted with enthusiastic glee from Guido’s funny and entertaining friend:
“Wow, that’s great! We get to stay up all night and get paid for it!”
Woogie was about the same age as Guido but much more extroverted. The nickname, “Woogie”, came from his love of Boogie Woogie music and his penchant for jitterbug dancing. He was considered a handsome boy who liked to wear his hair in the latest slick back style. Woogie was the life of any party and livened things up wherever he went but was gaining something of a reputation for being a little silly and immature, albeit in an endearing, humorous way. However, there were times when adults would question his intellect. Some people even thought him a little “slow”. The very mention of the name “Woogie” would never fail to bring a smile to people’s faces or produce a little chuckle. Guido thought that Woogie would be the perfect all-night companion for such a gloomy chore as his father had promised him. Dionisio was not so sure.
The son of a family friend, Woogie had been of some assistance to Dionisio once before. Dionisio was lining up for the movie matinee at the Odeon Cinema in Hamrun, just around the corner from the piazza, one Sunday afternoon, when Woogie who was also attending the cinema decided to join him. They sat together in the theatre and watched a movie that included a scene featuring some rather energetic teenaged dancers. Dionisio was scandalised:
“Look at those girls! No modesty whatsoever. They dance like animals. How disgraceful. Their parents would be ashamed if they could see them.”
Woogie, being a devotee of such dancing (and girls) was a little offended:
“Oh yeah? You should see your own daughters on a Saturday night.”
Oops. Woogie had inadvertently incriminated two of Dionisio’s daughters, Joy and Gertrude, who had a habit of sneaking out of home on a Saturday night with a change of clothes to attend the regular dance at The Phoenicia Hotel in Floriana. The girls were in big trouble when Dionisio got home that afternoon and were not allowed out of the house for any reason for an entire month.
Guido arranged for Woogie to meet him at the Bugeja family home in Maitland Street on the evening before the dead man’s funeral. They were to walk over to the dead man’s house after last instructions from Dionisio. Dionisio trusted his son to be responsible but wanted to speak to Woogie before the job:
“I have told the son of the deceased that both of you will look after his father tonight. You are to stay awake. I don’t want any member of the family to come in and find you asleep and not watching over their dead relative. At all times, you must be highly respectful, sensitive to the feelings of others and on your best behaviour. No laughing or joking or even smiling. Remember, the old man was loved by his family and they are in mourning, they don’t expect to see happy teenagers looking like they are having a good time in their house. Remember also that I have a good reputation to uphold.”
Woogie spoke up:
“Don’t worry, Dionisio. I will be very sad, very sad… and have a terrible time. That’s for dead certain. Oh. Sorry. I mean…yes…um…very, very sad. They will think my mother just died or something. Oh. No. You know…”
Dionisio rolled his eyes. Guido placed his hand gently on the arm of his blabbering friend:
“Woogie. Just shut up, will you. Don’t worry papa, I’ll look after him.”
Dionisio was nervous.
The pair walked over to the house at around 9 pm and used the brass door knocker to announce their arrival. They were greeted by the man of the house and ushered into the living room where the deceased was laying on a rickety old wooden divan. Woogie’s exaggerated but solemn expression changed immediately to one of utter shock, his mouth fell open and his face drained of all colour on seeing the corpse of the old man. Guido gave Woogie a long stern, look as if to pull him back into line. Guido had been relatively desensitised to seeing the dead from accompanying his father to funerals but Woogie had never seen a dead body before. The dead man’s father looked at Woogie, then at Guido:
“Is your friend alright?”
“Yes. He will be okay. It’s his first time. I’ll be in charge. Everything will be fine”, offered Guido in a soothing tone.
“Well, then, I’ll be going to bed now. My wife has prepared some sandwiches and a thermos of tea for you. They are on the table. Thank you for watching over my father tonight.”
“You are welcome”, replied Guido very piously. “We will pray for him”.
The man turned on a small lamp in the corner of the room for the boys, turned off the main light, and walked up the stairs to bed. The boys sat down on a divan that was directly opposite the matching one that held the dead body. A small wooden table sat between the two boys and the object of their mission, with a thermos, two cups and a small plate with two sandwiches sitting on top of it. The only other furniture in the room was a sideboard against the end wall with an old wooden chiming clock on it.
Woogie looked around in the darkened room and tried to avoid looking directly at the corpse:
“This is a bit spooky, isn’t it, Guido?”
“Don’t be silly, my friend. Have a cup of tea and a sandwich.”
Woogie slowly poured himself out a cup of tea. Guido noticed that his hand was slightly trembling. Guido took out some playing cards from his pocket that he had the foresight to bring with him.
“Here, Woogie.” Said Guido. “I’ve brought some cards to pass the time. It will help take your mind off things and occupy your thoughts.”
“But, would your father approve of that? Isn’t that disrespecting the dead? Wouldn’t the dead man lying there be offended?”
“Offended? He’s dead, you idiot. How can he be offended?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’ve heard about spirits being offended and haunting people….Ok, I suppose you’re right”.
Guido moved the lamp onto the small table so that they could read the cards easier in the soft yellow light and they set themselves for a few hands of gin rummy. Gradually, Woogie began to feel less anxious. Then he noticed that the light from the lamp was now shinning on the old man’s face from below. He turned his back to the corpse and concentrated on his hand of cards.
After a few of hours of playing cards both boys began to feel drowsy. They remembered Dionisio’s instructions to keep a watchful eye and not fall asleep but their eyelids were getting heavier and heavier. Finally, Guido could stand the sleep deprivation no more:
“Woogie, I can’t keep my eyes open any longer. I have to have a quick sleep. You stay awake and in twenty minutes, wake me up. Then, I’ll stay awake and be on watch while you have a little sleep. No one will know. Just check the time by the clock on the sideboard.”
“But what about what your father said? Wouldn’t that be disrespectful? We would offend the dead.”
“Offending the dead again! What is wrong with you, Woogie? Look it’s just for a few minutes each. Stop worrying so much. I’ll go first.”
Much to Woogie’s chagrin, Guido seemed determine not to take “no” as an answer. Guido lay down on the floor and closed his eyes before Woogie had time to argue. It only took a few short minutes before Guido was sound asleep and faintly snoring. Woogie felt alone and became more anxious as time elapsed.
The minutes seemed to pass very slowly to Woogie. He tried not to look at the corpse in the dim light of the lamp so he found himself staring into the pitch dark of the rest of the room. All he could hear was the tick, tick, tick of the old clock. His mind started to wander and he could not help remembering ghost stories he had been told when he was younger. He thought he heard faint sounds from within the dark but he dare not wake Guido whom he knew would be angry at him. Guido started praying to the Virgin Mary to make the night pass quickly as he became more and more stressed.
The body of the dead man had lay still on the old divan for several hours after his death and natural processes were taking effect. All of a sudden, a long puff of air escaped from the dead body, making a wheezing sound and the corpse shifted weight on the creaking divan. Woogie spun around in terror to face the old man’s corpse. Just then the old clock on the sideboard behind him chimed the hour. That was more than enough for Woogie. He jumped up out of the divan, yelling:
“He’s woken up! He has come back from the dead!”
He straddled a startled Guido on the floor, flung open the front door of the house and sprinted down the road shouting, He’s woken up. He’s risen from the dead.
Woogie ran down the streets of Hamrun to Dionisio’s house shrieking at the top of his lungs, announcing to the world how the old man had woken from the dead. He banged loudly on the front door to Dionisio’s building and woke the whole Bugeja household along with the residents of the other flats in the building. A shocked and disheveled Dionisio stepped out onto the front balcony of his flat that overlooked the street just in time to see the traumatise Woogie yell out, “He’s up. He woke up. The old man has risen from the dead!”, then immediately run away, presumably to the safety of his own home.
Dionisio quickly dressed and walked over to the house where Guido was now trying to calm an entire household of six or seven agitated men, women and children, some of whom were crying, some of whom looked angry, some of whom were comforting each other. Lights were on within the houses all along the street and people were peering through their windows.
Poor Guido. He took the blame for the disaster and was chastised by his father for taking on such an unreliable partner as Woogie. Dionisio managed to placate the distressed family and the funeral proceeded the next day without any problems. Dionisio was too embarrassed to ask for any fee from the family.
Woogie never lived down the “dizastru totali”. People who lived in neighbouring streets quickly learned what had happened and why they were so rudely awakened that infamous night. The incident did very little for Woogie’s gravitas but at the same time seemed to make locals consider him even more lovable and funny. He accepted the subsequent ribbing with good grace and humour. For weeks afterwards, Woogie would be teased on the street by people who would see him approaching and call out: Look out Woogie. He has risen. Praise be to God! Run for your life!
Dreadful screams echoed all the way along Maitland Street, Hamrun, in the late afternoon of a cool, windy and overcast day in April. Like almost everyone else in the street, Lucia hurriedly stepped outside of her home and walked out onto the narrow footpath outside to see what had happened. By the time Lucia had exited the two storey building that housed her flat, a small group of neighbours had already gathered in front of the little house opposite, where the distressing cries were emanating from.
Some of the women in the group had been mindful enough to wrap a shawl over their head and shoulders as they left their homes. The tasseled ends of those shawls were flapping in the wind while they congregated outside the bright blue wooden door of the house. A gathering of about ten women and men huddled together in silence on the pavement wearing various expressions of fear, concern and anxiety.
Something bad had happened. The commotion of shouting and wailing inside the house seemed to reach a crescendo, then go quiet, just as a teenaged boy burst through the front door and into the street. One of the women shouted out as the boy dodged his way through the bystanders:
“What in God’s name has happened?”
“The baby is dead! It’s not breathing. I have to bring the doctor!”
The boy ran off to the accompaniment of whispered praying from members of the small congregation who repeatedly crossed themselves while imploring God to have mercy. The bedraggled assembly intermittently broke up into ones and twos as people slowly walked away with heads bowed after they realised that there was nothing they could do but go home and pray.
Lucia was watching from her side of the road. She heard the young boy’s declaration of death from where she stood and decided to see if she could help. She went back inside her building, up the flight of steps to her small flat, quickly wrapped herself against the cold outside and hurried back down the steps again. She pushed through the front door of her building and across the street to the house that had attracted so much attention, the house of the woman she knew as Delores. She gently raised then lowered the highly polished brass knocker on the blue door three times.
Delores answered the knocking and ushered her highly regarded neighbour inside. The tearful mother of eight explained how she had found her six day old baby girl lying in her cot, ice cold and not breathing, after placing her there asleep not an hour before. The baby had been sick with fever and suffering from diarrhoea for three days. Delores had brought the doctor to examine the child two days ago but he could do little without precious medicines. Medicines along with food and other provisions were in extremely short supply in Malta in 1942 due to the Axis blockade of that year.
Between deep sobs Delores blurted out that the baby was not scheduled to be baptised until the next week and she had not thought the baby’s sickness serious enough to bring the priest. She begged Lucia to tell her that her baby would still go to Heaven.
The bereft woman looked to the sky above and demanded to know from God why He had taken her beloved baby. What had she done? Why did the innocent child have to die so young? Did not the family live a good Catholic life and observe all the laws of the Church? Why punish and test the family like this? Delores was inconsolable and it took Lucia some time to calm her sobbing. The sudden death of the infant after carrying her for the last nine months, difficult as that was during the relentless air raids and food shortages, along with it being so soon after the joyful homebirth of the beautiful baby girl, was too much for the woman to endure. The thought that she may have sentenced the baby to eternal Limbo because she had not got around to baptising her drove Delores to panicked anguish.
The heartache had spread to her husband and the other eight children of the household creating a dark and melancholy ambiance in the home and filling the house with traumatised children.
Lucia held back tears of her own as she held Delores’ hands in hers and pleaded with Delores not to fret. Lucia explained that because her infant had died as a virtual newborn, her precious baby girl was now an angel and watched over by the Virgin Mary along with all the other little angels in Heaven. The fact that the child had not been baptised did not count because she had died so soon after birth. The baby would never know hunger or suffering or grow decrepit with age like the rest of those she had left behind and would enjoy the ecstasy of Paradise with Jesus for all eternity. This was the glorious fate of all those who died as innocent babies.
Delores knew from local gossip that Lucia understood things of death and religion but still asked her several times if she was absolutely sure about her baby becoming an angel. Lucia confirmed that this was the law of God. She was sure. And besides, Lucia would immediately summon the priest to give the baby God’s blessing. The Priest would baptise the child then immediately administer the sacrament of Last Rites. It was not too late. Delores gave a deep sigh and seemed to collect herself for a moment at hearing Lucia’s confident assertions. Then, she burst into tears once more.
Lucia spoke in an authoritative tone:
“I must go now and fetch the priest.”
As she was stepping outside the front door, Lucia paused for a moment, then turned back to face Delores who had accompanied her to the doorstep. A thought had entered Lucia’s mind that she imagined might help comfort the disconsolate mother. She told Delores that her poor little angel deserved to be attended to by one just as pure and innocent. Lucia would therefore bring her petite, angelic young daughter, Pupa, to dress the dead baby for the funeral. It would be as if one angel attended to another. In the meantime Lucia and her husband, Dionisio, would arrange things for Delores.
Dionisio and Lucia earned a meagre living practicing private nursing and had branched out into arranging funerals within their local community. They would assist the grieving relatives by dressing the departed, procuring a coffin, engaging a gravedigger and a local priest and arranging flowers and transport to the cemetery for the burial. It was not pleasant work but the small considerations paid to the parents of eleven hungry mouths to feed were most welcome. The couple were well respected in their community, had established all the necessary contacts and could organise things very quickly.
The next morning Lucia explained to the five year old Pupa that she was going to take her to visit a lady’s house where she had a very special task to perform:
“Pupa, today you are going to dress a little angel before she sees Jesus.”
“A little angel, mama?”
“Yes, she needs to be dressed nicely before she sees our saviour. You will be a good girl and help the little angel.”
The naïve five year old child nodded her head in agreement. She did not understand what her mother was talking about but seeing an angel sounded appealing. Young and innocent, Pupa had no conception of death let alone any understanding of the notion.
Lucia walked hand in hand with Pupa to Delores’ house. She knocked the brass handle onto the door and once ushered inside by Delores’ husband, they were led into the couple’s bedroom where the dead baby was lying on the mattress, wrapped in a shawl. Lucia made the sign of the cross and gestured to her daughter to do the same. Little Pupa crossed herself several times while Lucia muttered a brief prayer. Lucia then called for the clothes that were to be used to dress the baby.
The husband left the room and returned a moment later holding up a tiny, pure white christening dress made of satin and lace. Delores appeared through the doorway dabbing at her eyes with a wet handkerchief. She became aware of Pupa and walked over to her. Bending down, she held Pupa tightly in her arms and smothered her with kisses.
Lucia unwrapped the baby from her shawl and laid her back down, naked and porcelain-white, onto the mattress. She placed the christening dress next to the baby’s corpse. Lucia looked across at Pupa and beckoned her young daughter with her hand:
“Pupa, come here and dress this beautiful little angel for Jesus. Be very gentle, now.”
Pupa dutifully obeyed her mother. She placed her small palm behind the infant’s back, gently lifted the baby’s torso and supported it with her left arm. While holding the upper half of the baby up off the mattress, Pupa used her other hand to slip the dress over the baby’s head and shoulders. She then laid the baby back down onto its back. Next, she carefully poked the tiny arms through the sleeve holes, one by one. Pupa completed her mission by delicately pulling down the white, frilly dress over the rest of the dead baby’s body. In Pupa’s mind it was as if she was dressing a doll; it had not registered in her child’s consciousness that she was handling a real baby that was once alive.
The job done, Pupa looked up to see Delores and Lucia watching her with silent tears rolling down their cheeks and pained smiles on their faces. Pupa felt a sense of pride, as though she had done something good, but was still puzzled about it all and did not fully comprehend what was going on around her. Delores hugged and kissed the little girl again while Lucia proudly commended her pretty, doll-like daughter.
That afternoon a glass sided funeral carriage drawn by a jet black pony arrived at the house. The baby had earlier been placed in a small white coffin which was carried out by Delores’ husband and placed in the black wooden carriage. The sight of the tiny white casket shocked the small crowd of mourners that had gathered outside the house and provoked a spontaneous chorus of audible gasps; sighting the diminutive coffin had highlighted the heart wrenching tragedy that exemplifies an infant’s death. Some women began to softly wail as the funeral procession slowly made its way down Maitland Street with the carriage in the lead, followed by the distressed family, arm in arm, trailing behind.
Pupa quietly watched the proceedings from the elevated position of the first floor balcony of her home. Her developing child’s brain processed the sorrowful scene on the street below and all of a sudden, the full reality of what she had done in Delores’ bedroom earlier that morning dawned upon her. Her expression changed from childlike curiosity to one of distress. Pupa grimaced and started to cry.
For years after the funeral, each time Delores would encounter the young Pupa out on the street she would quickly approach her, hug her closely up to her ample bosom and repeatedly kiss her on her cheeks. Delores would tell Pupa that when she held her tightly in her arms, she felt close to her absent baby girl who was now an angel in Heaven.
The Bugeja family had as rough and as deprived an existence as any in the working class suburb of Hamrun during the worst months of the 1942 siege of Malta. The fact that there were two adults and ten children to feed during those difficult times made it literally a hand-to-mouth way of life. Money was tight for the large family as the patriarch, Dionisio, had lost his job at the hospital in the neighbouring suburb of Gwardamangia. Food was scarce and expensive as AXIS warplanes and submarines ruthlessly attacked every naval convoy that was carrying food, military and medical supplies on their way to the Mediterranean archipelago, in the hope of starving and depriving the strategic British outpost into surrender.
The matriarch, Lucia Bugeja, despaired at the lack of food for her children. During the worst days of 1942, ration coupons provided only a chunk of bread and a ladle of soup for each child as their main daily meal. Lucia could only supplement her children’s diet during the rest of the day with another chunk of bread smeared with lard or a tomato sliced in half and sprinkled with salt and pepper, at the times when hunger became unbearable.
Lucia’s children were desperate for anything to eat. First thing every morning at the Hamrun Elementary School, young children would line up with a spoon they carried with them from home and be served a dose of cod-liver oil to improve their health. The children were then given a small biscuit to help take away the unpleasant fishy taste. The tiny nine year old Clotilde Bugeja (nicknamed “Pupa”- the Maltese word for doll) would be one of the first in the queue to receive the offering then sneak back in, unnoticed, towards the end of the line and suffer the disgusting aftertaste of the cod-liver oil all over again in order to receive another tiny biscuit.
The rent for the three room, first floor flat in Maitland Street that the Bugeja family called home was meagre but Dionisio and Lucia struggled to keep up with the monthly payments. Pupa was entrusted to walk to the landlord’s house every month with the one pound five shillings rent held tightly in her hand. She would walk the two kilometres to an address in Floriana, ring the doorbell, hand over the rent to the landlord and then walk the two kilometres back to her modest home in Hamrun.
The rent, along with other living expenses, was earned through both parents providing the rather incongruous combination of private nursing and undertaking services. Dionisio had worked for a time in a nearby hospital as a lay nurse and had trained his wife, Lucia, in the skills needed to attend to patients’ minor needs such as bathing and dressing wounds, administering injections and providing basic medical advice. As a sideline, Lucia also performed midwifery services to local women. Both practitioners were highly regarded and trusted by their neighbours who admired the couple’s medical knowledge. They were also called on by locals to prepare deceased relatives for burial by bathing and dressing the bodies of their dear departed, along with procuring flowers, engaging the priest for the graveside service and organising horse drawn transport for the coffin to the cemetery.
One particular patient attended to by the well-respected nursing couple proved to be a godsend and saviour to the beleaguered family towards the end of the WWII siege. A specialist medical practitioner had recommended Dionisio and Lucia to a wealthy landowner from the small farming village of Naxxar who was in need of nursing support. In keeping with the strong Maltese tradition of assigning nicknames, partly due to the necessity for distinguishing between namesakes within the limited number of names commonly used on the island, this middle-aged man had been known as “Chupa” ever since he was a boy.
Chupa was a tall, impressive looking man with a strong physique, fair hair and a big, bushy, blonde moustache. The wealthy widower who had only one grown-up, unmarried child– a daughter- was to become “Nannu (grandpa) Chupa” to the Bugeja children. Chupa was regarded as an affluent gentleman, a sinjur in Maltese, due to the stately house and large farming property he owned and occupied. He had suffered a serious infection to his foot which had necessitated some of his toes to be amputated. The doctor knew of the good reputation held by Dionisio and Lucia and recommended them for the cleaning and redressing of Chupa’s wound that was required three times per week.
Chupa, Dionisio and Lucia became friends easily. Over the first few weeks both Dionisio and Lucia took it in turns to travel to the verdant, rather prosperous village of Naxxar and both patient and nurses looked forward to the visits. The couple endeared themselves to the sinjur through their highly caring demeanour. When Dionisio introduced Chupa to his delightful young daughter, Pupa, the middle-aged gentleman farmer became besotted with the little girl, thereby involving him with the family even further.
Chupa’s farm was more than any ordinary property. It was more accurately described as an agricultural estate. The farm was expansive and virtually self-sufficient with acres of fields, vegetable gardens and orchards as well as livestock such as goats, pigs, chickens and rabbits. There was plenty to suggest that the sinjur, who did not have the expense of a large family to care for, was very well off. However, there was also suspicion that Chupa enjoyed more than normal income streams. Food products were very difficult to find in Malta at that time and prices had skyrocketed to exorbitant levels on the black market. The locals gossiped that Chupa seemed to be doing extremely well.
Every week or two Chupa would travel to the Bugeja’s home in Maitland Street, Hamrun, in a small wooden cart pulled by a miniature pony. He would pick up his favourite, Pupa, and one or more of her siblings and take them back to his farm in Naxxar for the day. At times he took up to four siblings in the cart. Children and parents alike looked forward to these visits for the largess that Nannu Chupa inevitably lavished on his guests.
Pupa was amazed on her first visit at the opulence of the farm and farmhouse in Naxxar.
On arrival, the cart was driven up to a tall stone wall and through a set of two huge, wooden entrance doors into a short tunnel which then opened up into a large cobblestone courtyard. Pupa looked up from the courtyard to see that it was surrounded on all sides by the high stone walls and windows of the sprawling farmhouse. Inside, the house was filled with heavy, antique furniture made from expensive timbers and decorated with inlays and carvings. Pupa had never seen a house so extravagantly well-furnished. Nor had she ever seen a dining table so long that it was matched with bespoke solid timber benches on both sides rather than chairs. Timber was such a rare and expensive commodity on the relatively denuded and ancient island nation of Malta that so much wooden furniture in one place made the young girl’s head spin.
Outside the house, the grounds were like a Garden of Eden to the poor girl from her town of concrete and bitumen. Rows of fruit trees of every description, crop fields and vegetable plots overflowing with leafy produce stretched on and on into the distance. Even the barns and stables were many times larger than the three roomed flat that Pupa, her parents and nine siblings called home.
The visits to Nannu Chupa’s farm were like spending time on another planet for the young Bugeja children; an escape from the 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; but only for fun. 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 Hamrun, he would enter a room within the house that was otherwise permanently locked and return with a sack 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 swing open a false wall and reveal a secret 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 wide-eyed, mouth agape and mesmerised by the unimaginable bounty. She would not have believed that there was as much food in all of Hamrun 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 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 tall, 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 a teenager and since then had dedicated her life to looking after her aging 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 inevitably 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 made a mess. 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 absolute fill and 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 from the kitchen. Constanza would then milk a goat directly into the glass tumblers until an enormous, full glass of fresh warm milk was obtained for each child. She would gather the glasses together in her big hands, 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 positively huge baking dish of imqarrun (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 repast. 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, Nestor. Nannu Chupa had picked up the two of them from Hamrun 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. That 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 Hamrun:
“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 Hamrun and go for a ride on a karozzin (traditional horse drawn carriage).”
“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. Nestor bought an entire boxful of assorted pasti and each child quickly scoffed down one of their choice. The next part of the adventure was a little more problematic.
Nestor 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.
Nestor spoke up to the driver in a tone more akin to a statement than a question and tried to sound very adult:
“Driver, can you take us to Sliema and back again, please.”
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 Hamrun be going to such a classy town? And why were they not taking a bus? He wondered.
“So, what are you two doing riding a karozzin to Sliema? Where are your parents? Do you have any money? He asked of the now nervous Nestor.
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 Nestor’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 and 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 Hamrun, Lucia was feeling worried as the children had never been so late returning from Naxxar.
For their part, Pupa and Nestor 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.
Nestor 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 for sending them home on the bus while 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 Nestor 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 the remorseful Pupa. Chupa reprimanded the two miscreants but showed his benevolence and compassion by never telling on them to their parents. It remained their secret.
Sadly, Nannu Chupa passed away barely two years after making first contact with Dionisio and Lucia. To the end of her days, Lucia would always refer to him as l-anglu taghna (our angel). The mother was eternally grateful to Chupa for feeding her children when they were hungry and helping her impoverished family get through the worst years of the War.
In keeping with the respect Chupa had for Dionisio and Lucia, the funeral preparations were left in their hands. Pupa was with a small group of mourners in Chupa’s bedroom the morning of the funeral and saw the renowned sinjur laid out on his enormous bed, wearing his finest clothes. Pupa was terrorised by Constanza one last time at that moment as the bereft orphan suddenly seemed to have lost her mind. In an unexpected emotional outburst, Constanza harnessed all the strength she possessed in both of her powerful arms, lifted the end of Chupa’s heavy wooden deathbed high off the ground and slammed it down onto the flagstone floor again and again while screaming “get up, Pa; get up, Pa” at her dead father. It took several startled onlookers some time to calm Constanza down, while the traumatized Pupa cowered in the corner of the bedroom, in tears.
Chupa’s funeral was famously grand and talked about in Naxxar for many years afterwards. It boasted the longest funeral procession ever seen in that small village. Apparently this highly respected and popular man had generously helped out many struggling families during the difficult years of the War.
Decades later, Nestor had married and was permanently in a wheelchair as a result of a motorcycle accident, when the adult Pupa visited him at his home 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 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.