On the heights above the unending sprawl, a group of friends lay pillowed on the rocks. Five teenagers, aged between heaven and earth, watched the sunset with cloudy eyes.
The waning sun shone over the horizon like a gem. The teenagers had wine and plastic cups in their bags. What could be better?
A faint autumn wind undressed itself across the heights. Nina, a green-eyed 19-year-old, looked out at the panorama and sighed her way into a smile. She was the youngest in the group. She was the only one to hear the ringing of bat calls as the group climbed the flat-headed hill.
Nina was a fifth wheel. The other four were all shipped together. So Nina always found herself on the borders of that circle of only friends. But Nina didn’t mind it. She was by nature a loner. And autumn was her season.
As the sun faded and night dawned, wine was drunk and fun tinged the voices of the teenagers and gave them wings. When night had cast its sheets over the cold panorama of labyrinthine sprawl, Nina looked up and marveled at the amazing absence of stars.
Naomi noticed Nina looking up. A breeze of sadness passed over her eyes.
“It’s horrible, isn’t it?” Naomi spoke in her smoky tenor.
“What is?” Nina replied absently.
“You can’t see a single god-damn star.” Naomi sighed angrily. “Look at it. This island is just one big sprawl. There’s not even a break in the buildings, no parks, no greenery. It’s like a disease spreading without end.”
“You’re wrong, Naomi.” Her boyfriend, Ben, spoke. “There are breaks in the buildings, look: cranes.”
Naomi and the others laughed sarcastically. Their faces changed and were bathed in impermanent scowls.
Except for Nina’s.
“I think the cranes are poetic.”
A garden of sardonic laughter flooded the soil of wavy night. What the fuck? Everyone echoed.
Nina didn’t know it but she had uttered a blasphemy.
“Just think about it, all those places, those limestone holes where the cranes are nesting, will one day be people’s homes. Those cranes are like wombs for a thousand incubating futures. One day, babies will be born in those buildings, people will have dates, make love, sing alone in the shower – cranes are like midwives, aren’t they?”
The four teenagers fell silent. Through the clarity of silence Nina awkwardly noticed what they were wearing. Their hair was mostly in dreadlocks, their trousers baggy mandalas, their wrists ribbed with bangles and their plain t-shirts bore the unmistakable perfume of marijuana.
Suddenly, these lifelong friends, people she had known and confided in for years, revealed themselves to her. The veil of friendship was lifted from her sight and she saw them as people.
Nina looked away. The four teenagers resumed talking. Nina heard them from a drowning distance. There was talk of corruption, of government conspiracies, of trees being cut and land pillaged by a development industry with a bottomless hunger. But for Nina, the night suddenly became clearer.
Parting descended like a summer storm over the horizon. Nina looked out at the island, hyped on concrete steroids, where she had grown up, and she loved it like an old Christmas tree.
The roofs and their antennae, the wooden balconies like a house’s smile, the skeletal towers climbing phallic and vulnerable, the soft lights from apartment windows, the hard traffic a horizon of our own making, and buses coughing at every homely bus stop.
This is where I grew up, Nina thought. I love it because, like, it has no peak, no climax, it never has, this island is a beginning and an end. Malta is perched on erratic scales always tipping either towards the past or to the future but never staying still.
Nina walked towards the city-rise and she heard the sniggering of the others as shrill as the bat calls. She found herself in a dark grove. The pine trees made an acropolis around her, oozing with dew. The fallen leaves crackled like arthritic fingers underfoot. She walked and walked until her friends’ laughter were as far away from her as childhood.
She was back inside the sprawl. She felt warm as if she had gotten into bed and its fleecy embrace. A frail rain fell, Nina only noticed it from the drops falling on puddles on the road. Cars drove past and people started running.
The shops suddenly filled with people seeking shelter. Children huddled under their mother’s jackets. The lights from the shops glistened in the wet roads, like moonlight on the waves’ surface.
In the balconies men appeared to watch the rain. Up on the roofs women rushed to take their clothes off the lines. Clothes that had been hung during the false security of a cloudless afternoon.
The church bells began to ring, their deep baritones joining hands with the soft whistle of the rain. The large church doors were open and inside, candle-light warmed the worshipers and the smell of incense trickled out onto the road, to be eventually snuffed out by the exhaust of nesting cars.
Nina felt inexplicably happy. She enjoyed the loneliness of the city without borders. She enjoyed the cranes that towered every few blocks. She wished she could see the buildings completed and wanted desperately to hear new lives being started within their grey and cheerful walls.
Nina also wished that in one of those skeletal blocks, one day, soon, someone would move in who could unravel that bittersweet secret that defied even the mighty stars: how to love Nina.