Photos of the two main child characters in “Stories My Parents Told Me- Tales of Growing Up in Wartime Malta”, all grown up and around 60 years apart.

Premier Performance

The first performance of “Contenders”, a short play by Rupert Grech, at the Old Lithgow Pottery. Encore performance at the Wallerawang Sports Club, 14th February.

The new print run of books has arrived. Still trying to catch up with back orders. Posting off another 16 today (11 yesterday).

First read-through after casting. Feels very strange hearing the writing, live 🙂

Remembrance Day Post- extract from the second edition..

Pupa and her classmates did not get much schooling in the spring of 1942. The Nazis had decided that Malta must fall because of the tiny nation’s strategic location in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea between Sicily to the north and Libya to the south. Malta was a serious threat to AXIS shipping sailing from Italy to North Africa. The Nazi plan was to move across North Africa from Libya and capture Egypt where they could seize the Suez Canal and subsequently control the supply of oil from Middle East oilfields. The successful Allied disruption of the Axis supply route of materials and reinforcements to North Africa, launched from the British base in Malta, had been one of the few Allied success stories of the war up to that point. During the second half of 1941, allied attacks sank 60% of Axis supply ships going to North Africa[1].  

In May 1942, German Field Marshall Rommel warned that “without Malta, the Axis will end by losing control of North Africa.”[2] Malta was pounded relentlessly with bombing. Luftwaffe records show that during the first six months of attacks, there was only one twenty-four-hour period without an air raid. During this period Malta suffered 154 continuous days of air raids. In comparison, the London Blitz experienced 57 continuous days of bombing[3]. The weight of bombs dropped on Malta during March and April of 1942 alone, was double the amount dropped on London during the worst year of the Blitz.[4]The main island of Malta, at 246 sq. km. in total area is less than one sixth the size of the City of London. Furthermore, the bombing was concentrated on the central and southern region of the island, especially the Grand Harbour area and central airfields. In the month of April alone, enemy planes executed 9,500 sorties over Malta resulting in 282 air raid alerts.[5]

The Maltese feared the Germans during this time. Earlier in the war, the reluctant Italian pilots flew so high in order to avoid the anti-aircraft guns that their payload sometimes missed the island altogether and their bombs fell into the sea. The local fishermen even benefitted from the dead fish the exploding bombs would push to the surface in the Grand Harbour. But since the Luftwaffe took charge of the campaign the strikes were clinically efficient and devastating in their effect. The Germans flew in low, reduced large areas to rubble and strafed anything on the ground that moved, including women, children and the elderly. Some of the worst of it was when the German planes dropped small anti-personal devices called “butterfly bombs” disguised as fountain pens that killed or maimed children who picked them up.[6]


[1] https://bit.ly/2TiSAs8

[2] A History of World War Two, A. Taylor and S. Mayer, Octopus Books, 1974, pp. 182

[3] https://bit.ly/2sPCEC2

[4] Ladies of Lascaris, Pail McDonald, Pen and Sword Books, 2019, pp. 160

[5] “75 years from Easter Sunday bomb attack- April 1942 was a devastating month for Malta”, article, Times of Malta, 5/4/2017.

[6] https://bit.ly//2MCFzHI

Second Editions

In a bit of an experiment (or was it something to occupy myself?), I’ve printed a small number of second editions of my two books, locally, through a printer in town. I will now see if there is any interest in me resuming my talks/presentations/book signings on Malta, its history and role in WWII.

PS the second editions are much improved on the original books with five new short stories in “Stories My Parents Told Me- Tales of Growing Up in Wartime Malta” (which is now also footnoted and referenced) and seven new stories in the other.

Il-PUPA

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.  Pupa’s fair-haired inheritance may have originated from Byzantine times when Malta was an outpost of that great empire or from the earlier Roman Empire itself. 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 Kavallieri as 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 Roman or a Byzantine 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, any advantage 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 smiling eyes and joyful nature along with 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.

Pupa was learning to sew at an early age and seemed to have a natural aptitude and interest. Her mother, Lucia, was so pleased that she told neighbours her little girl would soon start taking care of the family’s sewing needs and would leave school to help out around the house. Her eldest brothers would provide for Pupa and give her pocket money in return for doing their laundry, clothing alterations and repairs until she got married and left home or her brothers set up their own homes. Until her marriage, Pupa would share the small, four-roomed, first floor apartment near the piazza with her parents and those of her ten siblings that remained. 

The Bugeja family home was inside a narrow three storey building that was identical to both the adjacent buildings it was attached to on either side. The small flat had a section along one wall with a sink, two-metres of bench top and row of cupboards beneath that acted as the kitchen. The rest of the front space was the dining/living room of around ten square metres. There was a small washroom/toilet measuring two metres by two metres off the dining area, accessed through a hung curtain. Off to the sides of the living area were two bedrooms: one of about eight square metres and with a small open balcony above the street, for Lucia, Dionisio and the six girls to sleep in and a much smaller one for some of the five boys. The remaining boys would sleep on the floor of the living room. Washing was dried on a shared clothesline atop a common roof area and on another small balcony at the back of the apartment, accessed through a doorway at the end of the kitchen. The clothesline on the roof was shared with the two other families who lived in their building. 

The furniture in the flat was basic. An old, inherited dining table and chairs were used for meals that were cooked on a portable, kerosene-fuelled, one burner cooker or at the local bakery for Sunday lunch. There was no icebox. An old wooden sideboard was against a wall in the dining room. A double bed was in each bedroom, under which thin, straw filled mattresses were stored for those who slept on the floor. The main bedroom had a small dressing table, chest of drawers and wardrobe while the smaller bedroom only had a small wardrobe. There was no need for a lot of storage space as there was not much clothing other than what they wore each day. 

The only thing of any value in the apartment and something the whole family admired was a small but heavy ceramic figurine of a shepherd boy in a green glaze that sat on the sideboard. In reality, it was probably not very valuable at all, but any non-functional ornament was considered to be something akin to a luxury item by the family. And heaven help any of the children if they ever so much as touched it. Only the matriarch, Lucia, was allowed to dust the small statue and the sideboard it sat on so as to keep it away from clumsy little hands. The closest Pupa would come to the figurine was to absentmindedly stare at it while the family recited the rosary each night and fantasise stories about him as a shepherd boy in real life.

Pupa was a little girl who liked school. She had lots of friends, always seemed cheerful in class and was good at lessons. Her teachers were enamoured of Pupa because of her naive innocence and her desire to please.

Pupa looked forward to walking to school each morning because she would always pass Giuliano’s shop on St. Joseph’s High Street where she would linger for a few minutes in front of the store window. There, she would gaze at the most beautiful object she had ever seen. To most people it was a fairly modest and unremarkable little doll but to Pupa it was mesmerising. It had the sweetest, painted little face with intense blue eyes, just like her’s, and rouge red cheeks. Pupa loved the doll’s happy and carefree expression and the attraction may have been intensified by the prevailing troubled times of war. The doll’s hair was very unlike that of Pupa, being dead straight, platinum blonde and cut short in a modern style. It wore a simple, pretty white pinafore and her outstretched arms seemed to beckon a needy embrace. 

Pupa knew that this doll was something special and one day Giuliano confirmed it, himself. 

Giuliano had noticed the little girl’s interest in the doll and stepped out of the shop to speak to her on one occasion. 

“Hello, little girl. Ah! You know your dolls, don’t you! That doll you’ve had your eye on is probably one of the most beautiful dolls in Malta. It’s a very special one you know, and I was very lucky to get it. I bet there isn’t another one like it in all of Malta or Gozo!”

“Really! Wow, SOOO… beautiful”.

“Yes, really it is. You should ask you father to come and see it. I bet he would fall in love with it too and buy it for you.”

Pupa didn’t say anything but the smile left her face.

“Thanks mister. I better go home now.”

“Bye. Bring your papa to see it, anytime.”

 On the way home, Pupa was comforted by the thought that the doll appeared to be so expensive. She was sure it would never be sold since no one ever seemed to have any money around Ħamrun. Pupa thought that she would probably continue to enjoy viewing the doll through the shop window forever because it must cost such a huge amount of money. That contemplation entered her mind every time she dragged herself away from the window and it always brought a smile to her face. 

The only problem with school for Pupa was contending with the daily air raids. The children would rarely get through an entire session of lessons without the sirens blaring out a call to the air raid shelters. By March 1942, the Maltese people were enduring an average of 10 air raid alerts per day[3]. The children would have to descend into the dark and scary underground shelter several times a day. On one occasion during an air raid, Pupa was so frightened and fed-up with going into the shelter that she ran all the way home. The scolding she received from her mother ensured that she never did that again. Sometimes, Pupa would have to spend most of the day and night in the shelters. During the worst of the war, a typical day would begin with breakfast interrupted by an air raid, followed by the journey to school interrupted by another air raid, followed by the first lesson interrupted by yet another air raid and so on throughout the whole day. The comforting thought on days like this for Pupa was that on the way home from school there would be the store window to look into and the doll to fantasise over for a few precious minutes.

Dionisio had watched his little Pupa acting strangely for days. She seemed pensive and preoccupied around him.

In her heart, Pupa already knew what her chances were but the desire for the doll was so strong that she felt she had to try: 

“Papa, you know Giuliano’s shop on High Street?” 

“Yes, Pupa I do. He is a very shrewd businessman and smooth talker, that Giuliano. He has lots of nice things in there, but he is far too expensive.” Dionisio suspected that a request was imminent. 

“Do you know he has one of the most beautiful dolls in all of Malta and Gozo in his shop?” 

“I didn’t know that, my love. If it is one of the most beautiful dolls in Malta and Gozo, it must be very expensive. Things like that are not for people like us. They are only for the sinjuri[4].”

There was a moment’s silence. Pupa was cut-off and easily defeated. 

“Oh, yes . . . only the sinjuri…anyway, the doll is really beautiful! So, so beautiful! You can see it from the shop’s window if you like. You should go and take a look, Pa, you’ll love it.” 

Dionisio was moved by his little girl’s obvious infatuation. He did take a look at the doll one day when he passed by Giuliano’s, just out of interest and without his daughter knowing that he had done so. True, it was a pretty doll as Pupa had said. But any doll, no matter what the price, would be out of the question. How could he waste money on a toy when a single piece of fruit had to be divided into small pieces for each child to have something to eat? It made Dionisio sad to think that his precious little girl would never have a doll of her own.

Pupa and her classmates did not get much schooling in the spring of 1942. The Nazis had decided that Malta must fall because of the tiny nation’s strategic location in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea between Sicily to the north and Libya to the south. Malta was a serious threat to AXIS shipping sailing from Italy to North Africa. The Nazi plan was to move across North Africa from Libya and capture Egypt where they could seize the Suez Canal and subsequently control the supply of oil from Middle East oilfields. The successful Allied disruption of the Axis supply route of materials and reinforcements to North Africa, launched from the British base in Malta, had been one of the few Allied success stories of the war up to that point. During the second half of 1941, allied attacks sank 60% of Axis supply ships going to North Africa[5].  

In May 1942, German Field Marshall Rommel warned that “without Malta, the Axis will end by losing control of North Africa.”[6] Malta was pounded relentlessly with bombing. Luftwaffe records show that during the first six months of attacks, there was only one twenty-four-hour period without an air raid. During this period Malta suffered 154 continuous days of air raids. In comparison, the London Blitz experienced 57 continuous days of bombing[7]. The weight of bombs dropped on Malta during March and April of 1942 alone, was double the amount dropped on London during the worst year of the Blitz.[8] The main island of Malta, at 246 sq. km. in total area is less than one sixth the size of the City of London. Furthermore, the bombing was concentrated on the central and southern region of the island, especially the Grand Harbour area and central airfields. In the month of April alone, enemy planes executed 9,500 sorties over Malta resulting in 282 air raid alerts.[9]

The Maltese feared the Germans during this time. Earlier in the war, the reluctant Italian pilots flew so high in order to avoid the anti-aircraft guns that their payload sometimes missed the island altogether and their bombs fell into the sea. The local fishermen even benefitted from the dead fish the exploding bombs would push to the surface in the Grand Harbour. But since the Luftwaffe took charge of the campaign the strikes were clinically efficient and devastating in their effect. The Germans flew in low, reduced large areas to rubble and strafed anything on the ground that moved, including women, children and the elderly. Some of the worst of it was when the German planes dropped small anti-personal devices called “butterfly bombs” disguised as fountain pens that killed or maimed children who picked them up.[10]

The continuous bombing forced many Maltese to an almost subterranean existence in bomb shelters and caves. Many families dug rooms into the underground shelters and ancient limestone bastions or moved in with other families into larger public shelters. Many took bedding and cooking equipment with them for prolonged stays in crowded, poorly ventilated and unhygienic lodgings. Combined with the meagre rations and associated malnutrition, these conditions created serious health problems. As is often the case in these situations, it was the children who suffered most. 

In the summer of 1942, bombing had damaged sewer pipes resulting in raw sewage contaminating drinking water supplies. This in turn led to a typhoid epidemic.[11] It seemed particularly cruel that for some reason it was the children and youth of the island whom were most susceptible. 

Pupa, one of her brothers and four of her sisters all began to fall sick at around the same time. It started with headaches and fever, then often developed into a rash, vomiting, severe muscle pain and delirium. Pupa’s eldest sister at 18 years of age was the first to show signs of this disease which has been associated with war and misery since ancient times. She died within 24 hours of manifesting the first symptoms.

Pupa and her remaining siblings hung on for weeks. Her mother stayed with them at Saint Luke’s hospital in nearby Gwardamangia where she managed to get all the siblings placed into the one room. Lucia nursed them and comforted them, sleeping in the same room as the children and never leaving their side. Dionisio looked after the other children back at the apartment but visited every day and brought what little joy he could.

One by one, the children grew stronger and with the constant nursing of Lucia, recovered and returned home. Only delicate little Pupa remained in the hospital with her devoted mother, almost three months after she was first admitted. 

Dionisio knew how much Pupa hated being in hospital and away from her brothers and sisters. He would try to time his visits to coincide with what would have been family meal times to try and distract her from thinking of her siblings. It broke his fatherly heart to see her sob every time it was time for him to go back home to the other children.

One day, at the end of his visit, Pupa did not cry. She simply looked back at him blankly. This frightened Dionisio and he feared that her smiling eyes may have left her forever. Dionisio was anxious. He wondered if it was only sadness and resignation that remained with his daughter.

 The knock at the door came around midmorning. A young man had been sent to fetch Dionisio as quickly as possible since they did not think there was much time left. Pupa was dying. The priest had already been called to administer last rites.

Dionisio took a deep breath and forced out a long guttural sound from deep within that sounded angry. He quickly approached the young stranger as tears welled in his eyes. Dionisio grabbed the disconcerted messenger by the shoulders and shook him three times:

“NO…NO… NO”.

Dionisio released the shocked boy. He took a few seconds to calm down then began to weep.

Dionisio hunched his head and shoulders in hopelessness, utterly defeated. As he slowly raised his head, the line of sight from his moist eyes drifted through the window of their first storey apartment onto the narrow street below. He thought of the High Street. It was then that Dionisio remembered the doll in Giuliano’s shop.

Pupa would not die without having the one thing she had wanted most dearly in all of her short life.

As Dionisio stared into the distance for inspiration, ideas shot into his mind on how he could convince Giuliano to part with the doll. What would he say to him? Where could he lay his hands on some money? Would he have to steal the doll and run? 

Dionisio frantically looked around the room trying to decide what to do. His eyes darted around in all directions until he saw the sideboard and his sight rested for a few seconds on the green figurine.

Dionisio’s eyes widened as the epiphany struck. He seized the treasured statue more roughly than it had ever been handled before and rushed down the stairs, along the street and across the piazza, down the High Street and into Giuliano’s shop. With tears rolling down his face and his passionate begging, it would have taken a truly heartless man to refuse the proposed exchange.

Giuliano relented.

Dionisio arrived at the hospital out of breath. Tightly clutching the doll, he rushed into Pupa’s room in time to witness the priest bent over one side of the hospital bed, administering the last rites to his beloved child. Pupa’s face was so pale that it appeared as though every last drop of blood had deserted her. A slight sheen of perspiration glistened over her forehead and pasted down a few stray locks of curly hair over her brow and into her eyelashes. The child’s beautiful blue eyes appeared half closed and were gently weeping.

Lucia was sitting on the edge of the bed beside the priest holding Pupa’s limp little hand, staring into the eyes of her dying chid and quietly sobbing.

The priest was at first startled and then confused as Dionisio approached and shouted out,

“Pupa… look, LOOK!” as he suddenly pushed the doll between the priest and Lucia towards his little girl.

The priest stopped muttering his prayers. Pupa’s eyes widened.

The priest’s mouth fell open and he jerked his head back out of the way as the little girl who had been drifting in and out of consciousness sat bolt upright, with arms outstretched and snatched the doll from her wild-eyed father. Dionisio saw that Pupa’s eyes were smiling, just before she lay back down and slipped again into coma.

Minutes later Pupa, still tightly clutching the doll, stirred and opened her eyes once more. This time she remained conscious and did not slip away.

****

The doctor later explained to Dionisio that he believed it was the shock of seeing the doll that jolted Pupa back into consciousness and helped motivate her remarkable recovery.

Unfortunately, the doll was passed on to relatives and lost after Clotilde grew to adulthood and immigrated to Australia. Decades later, a photograph of Dionisio and one of Pupa’s brothers with the doll appearing in the background was discovered by one of her sisters. Clotilde – Pupa – now has that old and faded photo to keep in remembrance. 

No one knows what became of the small green figurine of the shepherd boy.


[1] Pronounced “Hum-rune”.

[2] Pronounced “Boo-jay-ah”.

[3] https://bit.ly/2CLLKnO

[4] Maltese word for “the wealthy” or “upper classes”.

[5] https://bit.ly/2TiSAs8

[6] A History of World War Two, A. Taylor and S. Mayer, Octopus Books, 1974, pp. 182

[7] https://bit.ly/2sPCEC2

[8] Ladies of Lascaris, Pail McDonald, Pen and Sword Books, 2019, pp. 160

[9] “75 years from Easter Sunday bomb attack- April 1942 was a devastating month for Malta”, article, Times of Malta, 5/4/2017.

[10] https://bit.ly//2MCFzHI

[11] https://bit.ly/2sPCEC2

A Covid-19 Day

The day did not start off particularly well.

Jumping out of bed at the usual hour and drawing away the curtains to expose a grey and drizzly morning, I could see that my daily forty-minute walk down the beautifully scenic McKanes Falls road and back again was out of the question. Especially seeing as I had experienced a brief sneezing fit and runny nose the evening before; you can’t be too careful these days. That regular early morning exercise, especially when in sunshine, with arresting vistas and the usual cacophony of birdsong, always starts my day with a good mood. I often see different species of birds like bright green, yellow and red Eastern Rosellas, deep red and blue Crimson Rosellas, pink and white Galahs, white with yellow crest Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos, Black Cockatoos with yellow crests, green Red-Rumped Parrots, black and white Magpies, Currawongs and Crows and if I’m lucky, on rare occasions the grey, bright red hooded Gang Gang Cockatoo. Its enough to make your heart sing.

But not today.

I was also anxious about my few minutes of sneezing the previous night as I knew I needed to do my weekly shopping and was concerned that I might sneeze in public and alarm people, given the present circumstances regarding the pandemic and the hysteria associated with it. There are so many nutters out there these days, who knew what sort of reaction I might be subjected too had I succumbed to said sneeze. It would not be beyond the realms of probability to be labeled “unclean” or “super spreader” and abused in the street by someone who had just enough knowledge of the virus to be anxious but didn’t bother to research enough to understand that sneezing was not a Covid-19 symptom. I imagined being surrounded by a motley group of mixed gender town bogans in beanies and checked flannelette shirts screaming obscenities, pointing their boney fingers at me and baying for my blood, as saliva dribbled from their toothless mouths. 

Something like that could draw quite a significant crowd. Not to mention being rather embarrassing.

I managed to dismiss that unattractive image from my mind, showered, shaved and began to get dressed. I pulled on a pair of favorite jeans, zipped up the fly and buttoned them up only to notice that the waistband was feeling more than a little tighter than usual around my belly. In fact, I had to suck in my stomach as I struggled to do up the top button. I walked into the adjacent en suite and stepped onto the bathroom scales. Hmm… it seems that social isolation is not exactly conducive to weight control. In fact, I would go as far as to say that hanging around at home indoors in track pants and oversized T-shirt while being bored shitless all day for weeks on end, is positively fattening. Mind you, it could have something to do with the amount of red wine and beer I have been polishing off of an evening, lately. It has been SOOO boring. I made a mental note: must find something new to keep me occupied at home and away from the fridge… and the booze.

But there are only so many times you can sing and play guitar on Facebook before you start to annoy people. There are also only so many times you can ring your mother and listen to 20 minutes of complaints about your father or ring your father and drag out 5 minutes of conversation from him- if the roaming gypsy deigns to be at home, that is. And you can’t keep ringing friends who are busy and have families and jobs or politics or finances too complain about.

My mood had not improved.

It is funny how a crisis can fundamentally change one’s personal values and view of life, how it can bring on an epiphany and show you what is really important to human existence.

I used to dislike shopping.

In a long past universe, I found it quite dull and tedious. I used to cherish travelling the world and experiencing new sights and cultures, broadening my horizons with new adventures and meeting new and interesting people. Over the last eight years at around this time of year I enjoyed going out in the evenings in Valletta, Malta, listening to talented musicians, sharing a drink or two with acquaintances, attending art exhibitions, concerts, performances, festivals and other events. But all that was in a former, more frivolous life. Futile and fatuous, really. How naïve.

The weekly grocery shopping excursion into town has now become the highlight of my life. I actually perambulate up and down the isles deliberately slowly these days to prolong the ecstasy. Marvelous. On this particular day, I was to exacerbate the unbridled joy of pushing a trolley around a sparsely stocked supermarket (I cannot remember what packets of toilet paper look like) while old people wearing masks and gloves avoid me like the plague and shop staff treat me like a leper, by also visiting the post office to renew my passport.

I had earlier downloaded and printed the passport renewal form and brought it with me. The form was already filled out except for the final declaration to be dated and signed. I had brought in the form, as advised during my first passport renewal enquiry at the post office last week as it would be too simple and easy for the post office to have forms available on site. I was warned to be very careful to click a print view icon while on the website and print the entire form with all its borders showing or I would be sent away to try again. They were very particular about their forms.

I had to renew my passport early as it expires in mid-January. I was supposed to leave for Malta at the end of May (it was wishful thinking). Also, you need a passport valid for at least 6 months before they will let you out of the country. Is that a hint? Is the Australian government terrified that I will come back too early? And you need to wait 3-4 weeks for the new passport. This all means that I had to renew in April and loose almost 10 months of my 10-year passport that expired the following January. That effectively increased the cost by over 8%. No refund, of course. Hey, we are talking Australian Government, here. I am surprised they did not charge me a penalty fee for renewing early. Oops, perhaps I should not have mentioned that to the young woman behind the counter, it may give them ideas. Oh, and the price of the already exorbitantly costly passports goes up on the first of January each year. Yes, that’s right, every-single-year.

“That’s $298 please and $18 for the photos, thanks.”

I looked at the photos.

“Oh, excuse me, miss. I think there is something wrong with the camera.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, my face could not have possibly aged so much in ten years. Your equipment is obviously faulty.” 

You know what? That young woman just laughed at me. I have every mind to complain to Australia Post about being “served by Trudy at counter one”.

Perhaps the camera is programed with new prognostication technology which prints a photo of what you are expected to look like by the time the new passport expires. Very clever. But a tad disconcerting.

I signed the declaration and handed in the form and my old passport.

“Oh no, you didn’t sign your name completely within the box.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“On the form. See, part of your signature is outside of the box.”

She swung the upside-down form around to face me and pointed to the space where I had just signed my name. The very last millimetre of the squiggle that made up the very last letter of my surname just crossed the line of the box.

“Oh, sorry. Ha-ha. I have a bit of a wild signature and the box isn’t very big, is it? Is that a problem?”

“Yes. I’ll have to send you away.”

“What!”

“You will have to get a new form. I can’t accept this one.”

“You’re kidding.” 

“Nope. Sorry.”

So, it’s back home to navigate the Australian Government website again and download another form, being extra careful to print the form with all its borders and remembering to sign completely within the box this time. Nothing out of the box.

Well, at least I have my charming photos to look at for a week. 

Fortunately, I bought some more red wine that was on sale at Liquorland (the happiest kingdom of them all) to keep me company for another scintillating night at home alone in isolation.  

Prologue

PROLOGUE

Most children know stories about their parents’ past. The children of immigrants have stories their parents have told them set in far off places. Stories from “back home” or “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 African man 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.