A Maltese Story
4 January 2020

Sliema, Marsamxett, Valletta-13km’s

It is impossible to write of Malta without acknowledging the light. Perhaps it is the limestone of which this island is made, or the blue sea that surrounds this small rocky outcrop in the middle of the Mediterranean, that makes it appear so particular, but it is present here unlike anywhere else. It seems shone through a prism of gold and yellow, orange and pink. And though it varies by degrees daily, it’s worthy of note even when the sky is thick with cloud. It is a featured character, even in this island’s darkest narratives and also in this, a short, Maltese story.

It is the day after Boxing Day and though a strong Grigal wind is blowing and the sea has been churned up into a tizzy, the sun is out and high and this seems as good a time as any for me to outrun my jet leg and the indiscretions of the Christmas season of which there have been more than a few. I set out from Balluta Bay along the sea front. I dodge sea-spray and tourists, small kids on scooters and poorly trained dogs which strain on their leads.

​Stepping out in Malta is always cocking the hammer of a gun loaded only with memory. When the trigger is pulled my hippocampus lights up with memories which I recall with a Super 8 and sepia tinted clarity. I am brought back to those summers in the 80’s. Me a small boy, fresh off a plane and borne into the arms of a vast and unfamiliar family, all of them deeply tanned with sing-song accents that jumped from English to Maltese to English again. I was unused to being so coddled and found it at first overwhelming. My Uncle John, in one of those small acts of kindness that remains with one for the duration of a life, had captured a scorpion and put it in a jar for me. My fascination with this exotic creature, which I had hitherto only seen in books, mitigated my discomfort at being pulled and prodded and pinched and passed from lap to lap, and I stared at it for hours. We would all gather at my grandparent’s house on Cathedral Street. It had a marble parapet with smooth rounded edges. There was the heavy front door and inside the antiporta (an inner door common in old Maltese homes) which rang a bell when opened. That hallway always smelled of my Nana’s minestra. Everyone would gather in the kitchen, which had a sofa and a large table around which and upon people were arrayed. My Nanu would hold court at the epicenter of the room and the mood inside would vary according to whether he was winning or losing at backgammon.

​I am now running the stretch of seafront from Msida to Pieta and according to some inscrutable Maltese logic some dog walker has picked up after their dog only to then leave the soiled bag in situ such that for a small stretch I’m avoiding little green bags of poo. I pass a few roadside memorials, common in the Catholic world, dedicated to misfortunate young dead drivers who’ve met their maker on this stretch of road and while I commiserate I can’t help but think what a privilege it is, today, to run these streets, to approach Valletta and its ancient walls and fortifications beneath a warm sun on a windy day in December. I run in the shadow of huge fortified walls, bastions as they’re called here. Further on I pass St. Elmo, from who’s walls this island has been defended for 500 years, canons being replaced by machine gun turrets and gun ports retrofitted with anti-aircraft gunnery in WW2. And then I descend the hill next to the Siege Bell Monument and my first full unobstructed glimpse of what must be one of the world’s richest views, Valletta’s Grand Harbour. As I draw abreast of the old Customs House, I realize I am in a race with a karozzin (horse drawn carriages used to take tourists around Valletta). The driver smiles at me and gesticulates at the road ahead to indicate that this is indeed on. I have the edge of him, the horse is not four feet to my right and the sea on my left glistens and splashes up on me occasionally. The racket the horse’s hoofs make on the pavement and the rattling of the contraption itself is deafening, built from an era before rubber and shocks were invented. Coming to the tunnel below Victoria Gate I realize I’ll have to surrender the sidewalk and run on the road or risk losing my lead. I glimpse back at the driver and can see he recognizes this advantage. I hug the wall of the dark tunnel. The horse is now ahead and there is precious little space between me the wall and the karozzin. Finally, we’re through and I take the lead again, at this point ignoring any other traffic, intent only on victory. On the hill going up to Floriana, beside Boffa Hospital he overtakes me for the last time. As he passes, he gives the air before me a playful flick with his whip and I smile back at him breathless. It is only when the karozzin passes me that I get a glimpse of the two horrified tourists within.

This could be where one ends
a small story of Malta,
but let’s not stop there.
Instead come with me
back to Cathedral Street
all those years ago.
We’ll walk up the dusty road
and stop at 65.
As we enter the antiporta
listen for that familiar DING
and breathe in the pleasant smells.
Staring down the dim corridor
is like looking through
the viewing port
of a camera obscura.
Notice all the photos
of long-dead relatives,
the paintings of saints
and Catholic statuary.
On the left there is the living room,
seldom used, heavily curtained.
Then the wide marble stairs
up to the second floor.
And now we’re into the kitchen
and that large table.
My Nanu and Nana
sit at its center
and all around them
their children
and their children’s children
and babies yet still,
all in various postures
and attitudes of voluble discourse.
The cigarette smoke here is abundant
and wreaths the proceedings
like the clouds in a
religious renaissance painting.
But don’t worry, it’s the 1980’s
and it’s not so bad for us yet.
Off to stage right a black and white TV
blares insignificantly.
Someone gives me a ribbed
green glass bottle of Lemonora
that sweats in the summer heat
and I sip it through a paper straw.

That house and my grandparents
and many uncles and aunts are gone now.
So why not let us linger a while.
We’re in no hurry,
and it was always
so nice to be there.