Before Emigration

 

 

 

September 1964, a week before Independence

 

 

The summer was bright over the rocks and the sea. A seagull dived into the water. A young boy watched it and thought of German bombers diving over ships and cities during the war. He was young and he wanted to jump into the clear waves. But the waves felt suddenly old.

He wasn’t allowed on the rocky beach. The beach was ‘reserved’ property of the British Navy. The boy had snuck in because he wanted to see the infamous beach before he and his family left Malta for good.

“I wonder,” the boy thought. “If the summers will grow longer when the British leave?”

A gaggle of soldiers appeared over the crisp horizon. The boy scattered and jumped over the rocky walls laced in prickly pears. He ran all the way back to the village.

His heart racing like a frog’s chin he was happy to set his eyes on his village. Hal Safi was an old sleepy village where the new sky sang purely every summer morning. The medieval church and prehistoric farms encircling it had been the boy’s crib and play pen growing up. He went into the bar where his father worked and found him serving wine to some retired dockyard workers.

When his father saw him he called him over to the bar. “Where were you running around this morning?” The boy told him the truth. If he didn’t, he would have to go to confession. But his father wasn’t angry.

“Before emigration comes integration.” His father repeated like a forgetful priest. He was adamant that his son, who would only know his native country for a brief eleven years, integrated as intimately as possible with Malta before the family moved forever to Canada.

“What was the beach like?” His father asked him curiously.

The boy shrugged. “Just like any other beach, papa. But I bet it will look different when the British leave.”

“Who said the British are leaving?” A dockyard worker shouted out from his formica table. He was drinking tea from a glass, his fingers flaked in pastizzi crumbs. “The British will be staying here long after we’re dead. You’re making a mistake to emigrate, Joey!”

“I don’t think so, Indri. After Independence the British will lose interest in Malta and when they begin to leave, where the hell are we going to find work?”

The boy knew his father’s fears better than he knew the Hail Mary. His father was against Independence. He would rather live in a stable country with a foreign flag than an anarchic one where the patriotic flag cast its long shadow. In defiance, but also in hope, he found work in Canada, the land of cool prosperity.

“Alfie, listen, do me a favour, take this bottle of wine home to your mother. She said she wants it for her rabbit stew.”

The boy took the wine and went on his way. In the pjazza of Hal Safi the boy encountered a group of boys he knew. They were playing in the street, under the church’s gaze, with a football made out of bits of paper taped together.

When he saw them the boy’s heart stabbed him like lightning. He went to ask if he could play with them.

“Go away, you sell out!”

“We don’t want British suck-ups with us.”

“My grandfather almost died fighting in the war they started.”

“Go play football in Canada if you want!”

“Yeah, he’d freeze his balls off playing there.”

“It’s ok, Alfie doesn’t have any balls.”

“Just like his papa!”

The boy ran away. He didn’t cry, he held everything back, but when he got home to his mother she could see him stood tense and stiff. She was in the kitchen like a full moon shining modestly in the daytime. When she saw him she put him on her lap. “What happened?” She asked him as calm as a summer afternoon.

He told her how the boys were picking on him. She told him to ignore them but that didn’t reassure him.

“Come with me, then. Come on, let me show you something.” She walked with him out of the kitchen and into the yard. It was a small, bright, verdant yard. The walls of flaking limestone shined like honey in the sunlight. Near the old wooden door of the yard stood a trajbu, a thin, upright lace pillow.

The trajbu wore a skirt: frilly bobbins were stuck mid-weave and a lace pattern was emerging somewhere in the ether. They reminded the boy of a spider’s fingers as they threaded cobwebs. “You see this, Alfie? Thanks to this trajbu I will always be Maltese.”

The boy wove an arched eyebrow. His mother smiled. “I’ll be bringing this with me to Canada and I’ll keep on making lace the same way my mother and her mother did. So if those boys are saying we’re sell-outs, tell them, we’re more Maltese than they’ll ever be.”

The boy had always seen his mother making lace, come rain or shine. But he never really looked at her work properly until now. The brown trajbu, which his father had made, looked radiant in the unique Maltese sunlight. The pillow-case his mother was making, although still unborn, looked almost magical.

Straight away, he wanted to find something to take with him to Canada, something that would be his equivalent of lace-work.

He went to his room overlooking the narrow, amber alley and looked through his things. Maybe the football his father had bought him. But they have footballs in Canada too – right? Maybe the crucifix that his grandfather had made him. But no, that felt too old somehow.

“I don’t have anything!” The boy shouted out, frustrated. He slammed the door to his room shut.

Later in the night, when his father came back from work, after talking to the boy’s mother, he went up to his son’s room.

“Alfie, come help me out with something on the roof.”

“What?”

“Just come.”

The flat, limestone roof overlooked the honeycomb town and the surrounding fields; fields as far as the eye dare see. The entire landscape was bathed in starlight. The moon was hidden away somewhere and the stars came out to play in formations like football teams. The ones shaped like a belt were the most beautiful to the boy.

“Alfie, did you ever fly a kite?”

“No.” The boy replied with wide-open eyes.

“Here, I made this some time ago but I was too busy to fly it with you. Now, I think it’s the right time.”

“Wow! Papa you made this?” The boy knew how good his father was with his hands, but this kite was something else. At its heart he had even woven a small rabbit, the family’s crest. It gave the simple kite a feeling of nobility. Usually, it was the nobility that got to put their family crest on everything. But now, the kite made the poor working family from Hal Safi nobles too.

They spent the whole night flying the kite over the roof. The boy’s mother brought them tea and galletti and she even heated up some rabbit stew. Occasionally high clouds blew past giving the stars a rest. But the boy smiled brightly in their brief absence.

“Listen well to me, Alfie.” His father spoke seriously all of a sudden, putting his strong arm around the boy’s thin shoulders. “So far in your life, you’ve never needed to be Maltese. You just were. It’s all you could do. But from now on, you’re going to have to work hard to stay Maltese. You understand?”

The boy understood. He understood well. “Papa, can I bring the kite with me to Canada?”

Mhux ovja, of course you can!”

When the boy eventually went to bed he dreamt about the kite. He dreamt he was running all over Malta with it and whatever it touched it became the thing itself. So there were times when he was dragging along a rubble wall, a prickly pear, a rosary bead, a pastizz, at times the kite even took on the form of a big church! But he never let it go. By the end of his tour around the island, his hands had begun to change too. Into what?

He woke up before he could find out.

The next day the boy went about his games around the village with newfound confidence. It was a terrifically hot day. All you heard were the cry of the street vendors and the cicadas’ dry static. The boy bought an ice-cream from a nun in the convent and then went to the well where the women washed their clothes.

There he found some of the boys that had picked on him the day before. Tethered to their mothers like goats all they could do now was throw him dirty looks. They couldn’t faze him, however.

“As long as I have my kite,” he thought to himself, “I’ll always be happy. I’ll always be up on the roof with my mama and papa with the whole of Malta underneath me.” Nothing could touch him. He wanted to play cowboys and Indians all of a sudden, but he had no one to play with.

When the day of emigration came the boy held his kite tightly to his chest as they boarded the ship in the harbour of Valletta.

He could hear his mother weeping and feel his father’s tensed hands as he picked him up over his shoulders. “Why are they so sad?” He thought to himself. “Ma has her trajbu and papa is taking his pipe with him. Why should they be sad?” The boy felt, though he was too young to put it into words, the strong, tough confidence that change couldn’t touch him.

It was sad, of course, when the ship sailed out of the Baroque harbour, so bright in the summer sunshine, so familiar, so comforting. But it didn’t matter. As long as he had his kite, he wouldn’t forget a single damn thing of this landscape. Memories can emigrate too. Not on ships, but in kites.

 

 

40 years later

 

Toronto Sun Classifieds:

 

Vintage kite for sale. Never used.

 

 

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    More from Justin in beautiful Malta…

    Like

  2. Jack Eason says:

    I love this tale Justin 😉

    Like

    1. justinfenech says:

      Many thanks Jack!

      Like

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