Prologue

PROLOGUE

I would bet my house that all children of immigrants can remember their parents telling them stories set in the “old country”. Stories told and retold by mama and papa, or other foreign language equivalents of “mum and dad”, to children as they grew up. Little vignettes about a mysterious time before the children were born or arrived in their new country. They were stories that gradually became familiar, comfortable and predictable with multiple retellings. They may even have been spiced up by a backdrop of war, political upheaval, financial hardship or other major calamities.

These tales were fascinating to us as children because they spoke of a time in the lives of our adult parents before they had become the grown-ups we had always known them to be. The stories often became part of family folklore and described strange places, different values and unfamiliar customs while giving us a little peek into the past lives of our ancestors.

The tales were all the more intriguing as we tried to imagine how our parents felt during that shadowy past in another universe, as though we had been magically transported back to those days ourselves. Sometimes stories from our parents’ youth allowed us to see parallels in our own young lives. At other times, the happenings were so different from our personal experience and clashed so greatly with our contemporary sensibilities that they seemed absurd. Often the stories were so engaging that they strengthened the bond between parent and child by forcing us to empathise with our mother and father as children; How would I have felt? What would I have done?

These stories also gave us some insight into the psyches of our parents. Knowledge of their momentous past helped to explain their personalities, to some extent, as well as shed light on some of their principles and ideologies. Those special proceedings which loomed so large in their consciousness as to warrant regular retelling to their children must have had a significant effect on their character. 

The noteworthy experiences in our parents’ stories must have been substantially formative. It is easily argued that it is the legacy of those experiences, and the resulting effect on our parents, that has formed their own personal paradigms. Perhaps the tales also help to explain some parental eccentricity or idiosyncrasy where no other explanation is available.  Listening to the life stories of your parents can be a revelation. Just why does my mother seem to be so infatuated with dolls? The first short story in this collection may be an explanation.

The tales recounted to me by my immigrant parents were all of these things. They were all the more enthralling because, being set on the Mediterranean island nation of Malta during the Second World War, they were especially exotic to a boy born in the inner city and raised in the far western suburbs of Sydney, Australia.

An added bonus to me from listening to those stories was an increased sense of identity. This was important to a migrant son who was well aware – at times painfully so – that his story was very different from that of those around him. 

Over many years, I had been thinking seriously about writing down the tales recounted to me by my parents. The story entitled, il-Pupa, being the major catalyst to begin writing. I would find myself retelling what I regarded as an amazing story to others, but not receiving the reaction I expected. I would always become emotional telling the story while my audience seemed to be relatively unmoved. I concluded that I must not be telling the story very well. So, I decided that I would write it down “properly”, one day.

In the interim I remembered other stories my parents had told me about their time as children during WWII. I patiently sought out more details of the stories from my mother over cups of tea and I softened up my father in order to extricate reminiscences with a glass or two of whisky, committing information to memory and jotting down summaries when I got home. Thus, the research process for this book was warm and gratifying in itself. While writing, I would sometimes phone my mother or father to clear up a salient point or get a more detailed description. On occasions, I would email my cousins for information and they would ask my aunts and uncles for their interpretation of events then relay information back to me. I also researched using that contemporary font of all knowledge, the internet, especially in relation to Maltese history and facts pertaining to the Second World War. 

What follows are all true stories based on actual events, although parts of them have been embellished and minor details changed or added, in the pursuit of making the stories more entertaining or filling in the gaps of knowledge. After building up inspiration for about a year, or was that procrastination, I sat down one morning during Christmas holidays and began writing. I became obsessed, stopping only to eat or sleep and to go for long walks to clear my mind. Thus, the first drafts of seven stories were written within six days. I then spent some of my spare time over the next year reviewing, editing and rewriting. Six years later, I have revised the stories a final time and added five more. 

These are the stories of my parents growing up during wartime Malta.    

Rupert Grech

Extract from the story, HOBZ U INBID (Bread and Wine)

“Ġesù Kristu!”[1]

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!” 


[1]Maltese for “Jesus Christ”.

Extract from the story, IL-ANGLU TĦNAGA (Our Angel)

Every week or two Chupa would travel to the Bugeja’s home in Maitland Street, Ħamrun, riding 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 brothers and sisters in the cart with him. Children and parents alike looked forward to these visits for the largess that Nannu Chupa always 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 flagstone 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, dark 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 a town of concrete, stone 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 flat that Pupa, her parents and ten 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 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.

Introduction from the story “The Bully of Hamrun”

Everyone who lived or worked in the vicinity of Ħamrun, Malta, around the time of the Second World War feared and avoided the man nicknamed “Iszus”,including the local police. Most people were terrified of him. Many people detested him. Some secretly fêted him. But all knew of his infamy.

Ħamrun at that time was a poor, tough, working class town. It lies about three kilometres further along the conurbation that spreads south-west along the main road from the capital city, Valletta, through the historic town of Floriana and past the area known as Blata L-Bajda (white rock). The locality mainly consists of small flats and maisonettes housed in narrow, two or three storey buildings of very similar appearance that are attached to each other, side-by-side. The whole area known as Ħamrun is around one square kilometre in area and around the time of the Second World War the municipality boasted 1 large parish church along with 2 smaller chapels, 2 band clubs, a police station located at the piazza and a bustling High Street lined with shops, bars and cafes.

The people of Ħamrun have an interesting traditional nickname.  

Nicknames are popular and ubiquitous in Malta, probably because of the severely limited number of surnames and Christian names in circulation in the past (as recently as 2014, the most popular 100 surnames accounted for 75% of the population). Nicknames are assigned not only to individuals and families, but also to the populations of entire suburbs, villages and towns. Possibly stemming from the fact that many men from Ħamrun worked as stevedores on the nearby docks and carried a knife to work, or perhaps in reference to the community of Sicilians who settled there illegally in the 16th century, the people of Ħamrun are nicknamed Tas-Sikkina (literal meaning: “of the knife”) or Ta’ Werwer (literal meaning: “of those who frighten”).

Perhaps the all-time scariest of them all was a large man in his forties with slightly greying hair known as Iszus, nicknamed after the all-powerful Greek god of thunder, king of all the gods.

Iszus was a huge and powerfully built man who towered over his compatriots. Well over six feet tall, muscular and barrel-chested, he resembled the archetypal 19th century circus strongman. Iszus walked with the slow, open gait of a dominant alpha-male. He always wore a traditional cloth cap and did not wear a normal collared shirt but instead, preferred a flannelette, sleeveless and button-less shirt that accentuated his powerful arms. It was said that there was no normal shirt that would fit him properly.

Iszus always had plenty of money even though he never seemed to have a job. He wore heavy gold chains around his neck as he roamed the streets of Ħamrun during the day and night, terrorising residents as well as local businesses. He would often stroll into a café or bar, order a meal or drinks and after having his fill, leave without paying. If any business owner dared to confront him about payment he would stare him down in a threatening way and order the foolhardy proprietor to put it on his tab- a tab that would never be paid. Iszus would do the same type of thing at family run grocery stores, fruit and vegetable barrows, the local barber and even lottery booths. Sometimes, he would stop people in the street and demand cash from them. There were also times when he visited the homes of people he knew and demanded a loan of money that would most likely never be repaid. People were too afraid to challenge him or report him to the police for fear of vicious retribution. Many had heard how violent he became when angered and about the brutal fights he had been involved in with other hooligans and bullies.

The most famous fight involving Iszus was with a dark skinned, North Africanman from Valletta who was known as Paulo il-Tork (Paul the Turk). In the Maltese vernacular “tork” signifies of dark-skinned Arab origin rather than Turkish.

Extract From the Story “Empire Day”

Little ten-year-old Pupa could hardly contain her excitement as she rushed up the stairs to the apartment, flung open the door and blurted out loudly for everyone to hear:

“They picked me, they picked me from everyone else. I was the fastest! I’m going to race on Empire Day!”

British Empire Day was a huge and much anticipated annual event on the school calendar in Malta. It was a whole day of athletic events, starting early in the morning and finishing late in the evening. Students from all over the island represented their particular school in a series of games and races with winners awarded ribbons, trophies and bragging rights. It resembled a massive athletics carnival except for the fact that there was very little sporting equipment available. The events included games such as the three-legged race, the sack race, the egg-and-spoon race, along with the usual sprinting and team relay races. This was all taken very seriously by staff and students alike with training and selection trials during the school term aimed at ensuring that only the best athletes competed. In this way, they stood the greatest chance of bringing glory to their schools. Strangely enough however, every child who wished to participate managed to be selected to compete for their school in at least one event. This much loved carnival would always attract an enormous crowd of spectators to the largest football stadium on the island, Empire Stadium, in the seaside town of Gzira, which could seat thousands of people.

As luck would have it, Pupa had a particular aptitude for the skipping rope race. She could tear down the track at breakneck speed, adroitly synchronizing her feet and hands as she agilely avoided the skipping rope twirling around her body and legs at dangerously fast rotations. After much training and competition, Pupa had been selected to represent Ħamrun Elementary School at this prestigious annual event.

After the excitement of her announcement in the small apartment had died down a little, the good news was complemented by the fact that two of Pupa’s brothers had also been selected to run in the boys sprint relay team for Ħamrun. Pupa noticed that her mother’s amusement suddenly seemed to wane when she learned about her brothers’ selection.

The reason Lucia’s mirth quickly evaporated was that after a few minutes the mother realised that in order for her children to compete on Empire Day, they would need white socks and sandshoes. She knew the family could not afford to buy such extravagances.

But Lucia decided to let Pupa and her brothers enjoy their moment of glory. She decided that she would gently break the news to them later. Lucia had the wishful thought that maybe in these tough times, the school authorities would
be less strict about the dress regulations or maybe they would relent as there would be other children present without white socks and sandshoes. She became a little resentful when she sarcastically thought out aloud:

“I bet the children of the sinjuri will all have nice, new, white socks and shoes.”

But she asked the Virgin Mary to forgive her uncharitable thoughts immediately afterwards- another indiscretion to remember for confession that Friday.

Introduction to the story, L-KEFFIENA (Preparer of Corpses)

Dreadful screams echoed all the way along Maitland Street, Ħamrun, in the late afternoon of a cool, windy and overcast day in May. 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 three-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 tasselled ends of the women’s shawls were flapping in the wind while they collected outside the bright blue wooden door of the house. A gathering of about a dozen people 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 become 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 and a few shrieks of anguish 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.

Extract from the story “Ghawdex” (Gozo)

After persuading the boy to tell her what had happened, Carmen scooped up the pre-schooler and rushed him over to the doctor’s house which thankfully, was nearby. Unfortunately, the doctor was not at home so Carmen explained what had happened to the well-spoken and always immaculately dressed doctor’s wife. She took pity on young Lewis and replied that she knew just what to do to help the groaning boy.

Lewis was terribly embarrassed to be laid out onto the dining room table by the two women, face down on his bloated stomach and with his pants pulled down around his ankles. But the pain stopped him from complaining and the promise of relief from his agony secured a high degree of cooperation.

Carmen was somewhat apprehensive as the rubber tube was lubricated, then carefully inserted and the warm water slowly poured down into it.

No one quite expected what happened next.

A few seconds after the warm water reached the end of the tube and disappeared into the boy’s anus, an almighty explosion of seeds, fruit, shit and who knew what else splattered all over the doctor’s wife and about half the room. Everything was sprayed with the vile sludge and stinking; the furniture, the curtains, the walls- everything. The offensive smelling material was dripping from the face, hair and half-closed eyes of the esteemed sinjura28, not to mention her expensive clothes. Both women looked at each other with expressions of absolute astonishment. Then they looked back at Lewis with an expression on their faces that seemed to ask, how did all of that fit into such a little boy?

Carmen was mortified and spent the rest of the day cleaning the dining room and apologising to the sinjura.

The mother spent the rest of that autumn avoiding the doctor’s wife. The sinjura surprised her husband by saying that she was not going to dispense advice to the locals any longer.

Harry came out of hiding after two days and received another beating.