Last night I dreamt a dream within a dream of an old woman who kept cows in a pasture beside a small forest. There was a circular path that ran through the woods upon which she would walk her cows every day. Round and round its circumference they’d go, ten times, before she returned them to the field to graze.
And then it was me, and I was walking along a similar wooded path. I was seeking a brook but I wasn’t sure where it was. I wanted to stop and write in my notebook, of the old woman and her cows, before I forgot the dream, but I felt an urgency. The sense that I could not pause until I had reached my destinationand I did not know how long that would take…
Today, I walked the dog through the stations of the cross of my youth; from the Sliema ferries to Balluta Bay. A strong Majjistral wind was blowing and the beach was full of cracks and fissures over which the dog leapt and ran absorbed in her own quiet ecstasies. I walked quickly with the wind in my face while the sea crashed onto that familiar, craggy stretch of coast as though desperately trying to reclaim something it once owned.
i. There was the block of flats called Lands End where we first stayed when my family moved here from Canada when I was 12. On the morning of what would have been my second day at a new school, I felt awful and told my parents I was too ill to go. They were furiousand said I had to be brave and while it was difficult starting a new school in a new country with no friends, I had to ‘make an effort’, but I still insisted I couldn’t go. My father cursed and threatened me with boarding school and then my mother dragged me by the ear to a doctor who looked down my throat and proclaimed she had never seen a more diseased set of tonsils. ‘I don’t know how he’s still standing’ she said. My parents felt awful. I was kept home from school for two weeks while they piled gifts and apologies on me. I spent my days beneath a blanket on a sofa in the bright living room where I happily read one Stephen King novel after another.
ii. Tigne Beach where, as a small child, I stepped on a ‘rizzi’ (sea urchin) and was given a towel to clamp my jaws onto as the black spine was extracted from my big toe and tears streamed down my cheeks. Where I would run and jump into the sea with sun-browned cousins who bore cuts on their knees and elbows from the sharp limestone rock, each wound painted yellow with iodine. Where we’d sip kinnie from glass bottles with paper straws and play comba (table football) in the shade of the hazeera.
iii. Qui Si Sana where we also lived and where my friend and I would throw water balloons on passing cars from our fifth-floor balcony.
iv. The ruins of the old chalet pier off which we would hurl ourselves bodily on hot summer days back when we were thrilled, and not afraid of such things.
v. The stretch of beach below Fortizza where I saw the dead body of an elderly British tourist, clad only in trunks, apparently felled by an enormous heart attack. His hands were folded over an enormous belly. His skin, the colour of white candle wax. A small towel had been placed over his face. A crowd gathered and stared. His wife sat beside him all alone. She didn’tsay a word. Just sat there waiting for the ambulance to come. So quiet and so sad.
vi. Victoria Terrace, another of our flats, where my father, enraged by a coconut he couldn’t open, stuffed it in a plastic bag and threw it from the third floor where it shattered on the pavement below.
vii. La Gelateria Lungomare where my sister sold ice cream and I would have my favourite, mint chocolate. Always a cup not a cone.
viii. Il Gabbana where we would skateboard and where I landed my first kickflip. We had a launch ramp off of which we would fling ourselves until one day we found it burned and its remains thrown onto the beach below. Along the smooth tiles spraypainted in large black letters: FUCK THE SKATERS FROM VICTOR MIFSUD.
ix. Surf Side restaurant, where in the winter, when it was empty, we would skateboard on the parapet just feet from the sea.
x. The tik-ridden tal-katcha hound I found, a stray, and took to the local grocer to give water. ‘Yuh! Don’t touch it ta’ the young woman who worked there said. ‘You’ll get AIDS.’
xi. The bottom of Dingli Street where we used to play pool at the Sea Cliff Hotel and my nose was once broken by an errant cue ball.
xii. Exiles where I first kissed a girl.
xiii. The bar on the beach with the jukebox that never changed its tunes and where ironically, as a Canadian, I first heard Neil Young’s ‘Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.’ Sha la la la la la.
xiv. Balluta, where I watched from a distance as the body of an elderly fisherman, missing for some days, was finally pulled from the water and put on a stretcher. I’ll never forget how one of his arms fell out and dangled there limply as he was borne away.
As I walked the song ‘Run Boy Run by Lee Hazelwood played in my head.
‘Run boy run boy run boy run.
They’re gonna getcha boy run boy run.
They’re gonna getcha boy run boy run.
Run boy run boy run boy run.’
I thought of the other bodies I’ve seen.
In 1995, in Toronto, on a blisteringly hot day in the harbour, I watched a plane, a British bomber that was participating in the Air Show. It seemed to stutter in the haze high over the tree line of Toronto Island and then it turned sharply, nose down and plummeted into Ashbridges Bay. There was an enormous explosion and I could see from a mile away where I was standing, on the deck of a steel, staysail schooner, a jet of water project hundreds of feet up into the air. There was a brief moment of utter silence and then Channel 16 erupted with fevered chatter. For days after, we watched as police boats brought wreckage from the crash to the Harbour Police station on their low transoms. And with it the bodies of men and the pieces of those men.
And my uncle. His daughters had wanted him buried with a bracelet he used to wear and I ran with it to the undertaker where his body lay. I got to the door but couldn’t bring myself to enter and my father came and took it from me. The last I saw of my uncle were the toes of his cowboy boots protruding above the coffins rim.
But what of my dream within a dream? The old woman and her cows? Well I finally reached the brook and I knelt by the cool water and notebook on knee, I wrote it down.
One day as the old woman was walking the path through the woods with her cows, she fell dead. She was soon found, taken away and buried.
Meanwhile, her cows just kept walking around and around on that forest path. It was a week before a neighbour realized and finally went down to fetch them.