Afternoons at Huxxluq
16 February 2021

for Maurice, Moira, Veronica and Patrick

Follow me down a narrow country lane.  High, dry stone walls sheathe the road tightly and small birds flit back and forth between them.  The sky is an incandescent blue and the sun is high up in it.  It’s a warm day in February.  

My father is driving.  He is old now, but his driving skills remain undiminished and besides, he has driven this road many hundreds of times.  Up ahead on the right you will see a white statue of the Madonna nestled beneath a cluster of trees.  The pedestal is bordered with a blue paint which matches the sky. The paint colour is known fittingly as Tal-Madonna (of the Virgin Mary).  We hang a sharp right at her feet and park beside a squat old building.

My uncle Maurice has had a farm here for 40 years.  It is called Huxxluq (the x in Maltese is pronounced sh), for the village in which it is nestled.  The building beside which we have parked is part of the original farmhouse which dates back to the 1470’s and was first used as an abottoir.  

The village of Huxxluq is one of four original hamlets that coalesced in the middle ages to become Siġġiewi.  There is safety in numbers, and this would have been done to protect themselves from the marauding bands of brigands and pirates who would regularly make incursions into the interior to plunder produce and kidnap locals for the slave trade.

Memory #1

It’s near midnight.

My uncle Maurice 
leads a band of us children
to the old chapel nearby.
He carries a lantern.  
We stay close.
Ghost stories have been told
this evening.

As we approach the chapel,
I can see the flicker
of a candle through the large keyhole
of the closed doors.

For some reason,
it terrifies me.

Zoe, my parents dog, whines and scratches at the metal gate in anticipation.  When I slip the latch she bolts through and is gone in a thunder of paws.  She will orbit the property dozens of times in the next hours, never seeming to tire.  She has little sense of spatial awareness and the elderly and small children must take care for she will knock them over in her ecstasies.

I hear my uncle call. 

You will find him always busy.  A battered sun hat pulled low on his head and pruning shears, spade or saw close to hand. 

Today it is a clipboard.  He is making an inventory of all the flora he has on the property which is approximately 1 hectare or 10,000 square metres.  

Maurice turned 75 last week but is in rude health.  His face is dark and as furrowed as the fields he tends.  Years of working in the sun have leathered the skin.  He is always on his feet and fit as a result.  Most years he goes to Spain and walks a stretch of the Camino.  He has a grey beard and mischievous eyes.  His voice is low and familiar and soothing as the sound of rain on a car roof.  Like my father he has an ever so subtle problem with his ‘r’s’.

This farm is not Maurice’s living, but rather a hobby, albeit an all-encompassing one.  Over the years he has teased the earth.  Turned it over, tilled and planted.  Experimented with diffent crops.  Turned what was originally a rather barren patch of earth into a thriving garden and orchard.  

He has some 220 olive trees and come september he will gather what family is available to harvest.  Tarps are dragged around each tree’s trunk and spread out.  A device that looks like a mechanized rake is stuck up in the branches.  It vibrates and shakes the olives loose.  The smaller children and the more nimble among us, then ascend into the branches to pick whatever is left.  

Memory #2

It is a summer evening.  Hot.
Most of my aunts and uncles
and the 23 first cousins
are all gathered at the farm.
We sing songs and play games.
One game involves a cork on a string
being tied to the back of your shorts.
You must squat over a candle 
and put the flame out 
with the dangling cork.

It is my Nanus turn.
He is a big man.
As he bends his knees he bellows
and evokes the saints.  

There is laughter everywhere.

As well as Olive trees there are lemon, orange and tangerine.  There is Aleppo Pine and the national tree the Għargħar. There is Hollyoak and Dwarf Palm, not to mention numerous shrubs, bushes and vegetable crops.

Maurice takes me down to the middle field which he has cleared. He intends to plant only indigenous flora.  He will put a pond there too.  

Maurice still has the original deed to the farm.  It is in Italian and it dates back to the 1470’s when it was leased by Dominican Friars to a benestante (a gentleman of means).  It was subject to an annual ground rent of one lamb, payable at Eastertime.  The rent was only monetized in the 19th century.  

The Friars themselves had been bequeathed the farm and other assets by another ‘gentleman of means’.  Among these assets was a 20% share in the pirate ship San Giuseppe.

I have been coming to this place since the early 80s when Maurice bought it.  Every Sunday members of the Tabone clan gather here for lunch.  Two generations of children have grown up visiting and it has been alive with all their shouts and cries.  There is a football pitch, a tree house, a jungle gym made from rope and nets used on the TV film Moby Dick.  

Dozens of dogs and cats have been laid to rest here. As they enriched our lives, so is the soil rich with their bones.  

Geckos dart across the stone walls and chameleons lazily stalk the branches of small trees.  Hedgehogs hide beneath shrubs. 

At one point there were three hens and a ruthless cockerel who took a dislike to my aunt Moira and would chase her.  My cousin Patrick and I had to capture him and he was exiled to a chicken coop in a field in Bidnija where a friend of ours keeps fowl. Apparently he was a bastard there too.


I wake in the main room.
The fire is down to embers
that wink and smoke pleasantly.
I can hear the sounds 
of my sleeping cousins
who are around me.
On the floor, on the sofa,
in the old armchair.
The statue of St. Paul,
is visible in the dim light.
His arm is held aloft,
a finger extended
as he delivers
some religious decree,
but it has always looked to me, 
like he’s just giving the finger.

I drift back to sleep.

We have lunch outside.  Hobz biz-zejt. Literally translated as bread with oil.  Maltese bread is crusty and airy on the inside.  The bread is dressed with olive oil, kunserva (like tomato paste), capers, broad bean and tuna.  

My uncle and my father reminisce.  Swap stories back and forth.

Both of them lost a year of school to illness.  Maurice had scarlet fever when he was seven and was quarantined to the Lazaretto Quarantine Hospital for four months.  He was allowed no visitors but one day a man approached dressed in the white of the hospital staff.  Only when he got closer did he realize it was his father, my Nanu (grandfather in Maltese) who had disguised himself and snuck in to see him.

My dad was a little older when he was stricken with illness.  At first, they thought it was polio, and then St. Vitus’ Dance. Whatever it was, he was in bed for a year.  His recovery is attributed to a colleague of my Nanu’s.  A man named Grabil (Gabriel) who vowed to walk from the Kings Gate to St. Publius on his knees to intercede with the lord on behalf of my ailing father.  He did. My father got better.

Maurice tells me that both he and my uncle Albert had their tonsils out on the dining room table of their Floriana home.

My uncle shares with my father, and indeed most of the family, the same wicked sense of humour. 

Within minutes of my arrival, he has added a Maltese expression to my growing vocabulary.  

Taqta’ l-bajd biex tinki l-mara, which translates as cut off his balls to spite his wife.  

Memory #4 

My Nanu is in a wheelchair.
I push him along the bumpy lane
to the chapel nearby.
He tells me a story
about diving into a ditch near Mdina
to avoid a Luftwaffe air raid.
At one point he emits a fart
that rattles the frame of the wheelchair.

‘Skużani,’ he says, ‘backfire.’

My Nanu worked all week but on Saturdays afternoon he would take a siesta.  Maurice tells me he would offer to wash his father’s car, a Renault Dauphine, as he slept.  This was merely a ruse to sneak the car out for a drive.  

One afternoon he was barreling along the coast road at Taxbiex when he saw his Auntie Winnie on the balcony of her villa.  There were few cars on the island back then and his aunt would surely recognize the vehicle and see who was driving it too.  Maurice raised his arm up to shield his face from her but unfortunately, he shielded his eyes as well and he drove the car straight into the back of a parked car.  Maurice then had to sheepishly call his father from his aunt’s phone and tell him what had occurred.  The woman whose car my uncle rear ended was a Wren.  

‘She took my father to the cleaners,’ he said.

My father tells us about the time he was driving down a steep hill in Sliema when the brakes of his Fiat 1400B, a large, ungainly vehicle, failed.  There was a car coming up the hill and he made a split-second decision and steered the car into the front of a house.  Part of the fender ended up in the living room where the elderly owner of the house used to sit by the window and watch the world go by.

‘Madonna!  Madonna!’ she screamed waving her hands in the air.  ‘But I was just sitting there!’  

Her invocation, and adoration of the Virgin Mother did not stop her from taking my Nanu to the cleaners.

Memory # 6

A family game of football.
The team Captains 
are Maurice and my Father.

Maurice has decreed 
that the losing teams captain
will be flogged with a bramble
he has specially selected.

My father’s team loses.
He sneaks inside and stuffs 
his trousers with magazines.

Outside the family are gathered
for the spectacle.
My father returns
and Maurice tears the magazines out.

The flogging commences.

My Nanu and Nanna had nine children.  Four of whom are gone.  Maurice and my dad are the last of the brothers.  

Too soon, it is time for us to go.

As we get in the car and drive down the narrow lane my father speaks, and he says exactly what I am thinking.

‘We are so lucky to have the family that we have.’

But never mind these stories, you.
And mind the potholes,
these are Maltese roads!  
Over there, to the West
is the rugged coast of Dingli
and its tall cliffs.  
and to the south
is the deep blue water
of Zurrieq and Għar Lapsi.  

Look at the colour of the sky!  

See the stepped fields
of green and yellow, 
the way the light hits them
on that steep hill.
And on top overlooking it all 
the Laferla Cross, 
where on the evening
before Good Friday, 
pilgrims go to pray.