7th June 1919
It was when he saw a man walking through Valletta with his intestines in his hand that Indri learned the meaning of happiness.
The man’s blood, dripping like rain off a palm frond, looked even brighter against the white limestone pavement. In the sun, the red and white reminded Indri of the colours of the Maltese flag.
Hardly anyone noticed him. The streets were in chaos. The riots had reached the Francia building. Indri could hear glass shattering and smell burning wood. All manner of furniture was being thrown out of the elegant building. And the man with his guts in his hands still walked on.
Indri was a twenty-year-old from nearby Hamrun. Like the rest of the men of the island he used to work in the dockyards. After the end of the Great War, he was laid off. The warships stopped coming and Malta’s economy ground to an impoverished standstill.
But Indri never minded. He wasn’t built for work anyway. The long hours in the dockyard used to tire and depress him. Now that he was unemployed, living with his parents who owned a small haberdashery, he felt free and nonchalant.
Indri didn’t think a man could be made of emotions. A man was made of passing time. Yesterday, now and tomorrow are man’s only true feelings.
As such, Indri didn’t hate the British, nor the Italians, nor even the Maltese. For him politics smelled of Burton beer and cigarettes. He would hear older men discussing Manuel Dimech, Nerik Mizzi, the church and the governor in the taverns as he drank away his faceless nights. And that was all.
On the seventh of June 1919 he went into Valletta because he needed to buy whisky for his father. In this he was unlike the rest of the Maltese who went into Valletta that day to protest against the high taxes and obesely inflated price of bread imposed by the colonial government.
The riots started in the afternoon as the National Assembly convened to discuss a potentially country-changing resolution.
Indri had been in the de Valette band club having a smoke with a friend who used to work in the dockyard with him. He heard the first ideological stampede in the island’s history as he drank a grog of whisky. Some of the men inside the band club went outside to join the riots. Indri stayed put at first.
When they finished their whisky his friend suggested they both go join the riots.
Once outside, his friend ran into the offices of Cassar Torreggiani and joined in with the rest of the looters. But Indri held back. He walked calmly through the madness. He had never seen Valletta like this before. A World War had just ended and Valletta got through it veiled in peace. But now it was engulfed in war. Isn’t every war a world war for the people involved in it, Indri thought?
All around him people were shouting “Viva Malta!” Others were screaming, “the soldiers are coming!” “They’re opening fire, some people have been shot!” “It doesn’t matter, fuck the soldiers, just get the yes-men, the scum who sold their soul to the British!”
A mother ran through the crowds with her young son. The boy was accidentally elbowed in the eye by a man running through the crowds. He clutched his eye crying. Indri ran into a nearby bar, stole some ice, and applied it to the boy’s eye. The mother thanked him with her hand on her heart.
Soon after, Indri saw the man with his intestines in his hands. He had been stabbed in the stomach by a soldier’s bayonet. Indri watched his face and noticed no pain, no grimacing, only a loud desperation, a grim hopelessness.
It didn’t seem to Indri that that man was afraid of dying. His eyes flickered with life and seemed to be calculating all the things he wouldn’t get to do. He was around Indri’s age. Maybe he was a virgin, Indri thought, maybe he was in love but would never get married, he would never get to have children, to see his son pick up a pair of scissors for his quccija, and he would never get to see another festa.
Suddenly, Indri felt an overwhelming, inconsolable heartache for the dying man. It was as if he was a second self, a fleshed-out incarnation of his own soul. Indri’s own future life began torpedoing in front of his eyes. He saw his own marriage, children, emigration and last rites. It was all so real and so instantaneous. And it filled Indri with a rage he had never felt before, a rage he had never even thought possible.
He looked up at the Francia building, the seat of the family that monopolised wheat and bread and bedded the British so they could get rich off the backs of their own compatriots. Their greed, their machinations, their lusts, were directly responsible for that man’s guts, for his future denied; they were the ones prohibiting any potential happiness – how god-damn dare they.
In the anger that overwhelmed him – Indri didn’t know this yet – there lingered a miniscule pearl of excitement. Of daring. Of happiness.
And it was that fragmented mine of desire that made him run into the Francia building to join the rest of the looters. He was destroying furniture and tearing up paintings shoulder to shoulder with criminals and patriots alike.
One man, with a wrinkled face and bloated eyes, grabbed Indri by the shoulder and shouted at him, spittle flying like blood from a fresh wound: “these are the real colonists, these sons-of-bitches, not the British, they don’t give a fuck about us, mark my words, if we don’t stop them, Malta will be colonised by the Maltese!”
Without waiting to see the response his words had left on Indri’s face, the man disappeared in the smoke that was rising from a nearby room.
Indri didn’t care about the Francias, about the Cassar Torreggianis, about the British or even the Maltese. Not a single one of them stopped to take care of the dying man holding his guts in his hands like a pregnant woman holding a miscarried fetus for dear life.
That man will never be happy, Indri thought – and it’s not because of Nerik Mizzi, Filippo Sciberras, or the incoming Lord Plumer – but because of men who don’t give a shit about other men.
Having heard of the invasion and destruction of the Daily Chronicle building, Indri began making his way over to the site. He noticed, along the way, how the pavement where his sister and her friends used to play pasju on Kingsway was now scorched and bloodied.
On his way to the Chronicle, Indri, now swallowed by the demented crowds, was met by a line of soldiers holding bayonets, aiming them threateningly at the rioters.
“They had orders not to shoot. But they’ve shot at us once and they’ll do it again.”
Indri violently tore open his shirt and bared his chest at the soldiers. He shouted: “one day, I’ll be pointing a bayonet at you!”
He knew he would keep his promise. He knew it was the only way for a man to protect his happiness. To keep his guts from being ripped out of his body.
He saw his ripped shirt on the floor and remembered it had been a Christmas present from his mother. She had sown it herself.
Indri trampled on his shirt as he ran to the Chronicle.
It was there that, with the help of the drunken crowds, Indri beat up a British soldier.
Indri was the one throwing repeated punches into the fallen soldier’s face. He hit him so many times that he could no longer feel the difference between his fist and the soldier’s nose, lips and eyes.
Blood stopped pouring after the first few punches. It made Indri punch ever harder to force out the last dregs.
When Indri was done – he didn’t know if the soldier was dead or alive – he whispered to the comatose soldier: “nothing personal.”
Don’t worry, anyway, Indri thought, I’ll be arrested, unlike all you soldiers who opened fire and killed us. We’ll pay for your crimes, in your courts; the hungry will be punished by the well-fed for trying to share in their meal.
The crowds were calmed somewhat after being addressed by Count Caruana Gatto later in the day.
Soldiers moved in and the rioters began to slowly disperse. But not Indri. Alone, still unthinking and blinded by his joyous rage, he charged at a soldier and punched him square in the eye.
It felt to Indri like watching fireworks explode in a summer night sky. It was the last thing he remembered before the butt of a rifle forced him out cold.
He came to in a cell as crowded as the streets of Valletta. He felt brutally hungover. All around him were wounded, dispirited men, tired, jaded and abandoned.
Some of the men were reciting the words of Manuel Dimech, trying to keep their spirits high.
“Sliema ghalic Bandiera taghna!
Lejc inharsu, biex nitghaxxku
Ahna li tasseu Maltin.”
A chill went through Indri’s tired spine. He was a man who didn’t know how to read or write, but he knew, as if it was etched in his blood, the words of Manuel Dimech. He chanted along with the men and promised to die fighting for his flag, his country, his people, freedom and equality.
But in truth, Indri knew, he wasn’t fighting for anything as symbolic as a flag or an island; he was fighting for the men who were beside him, men who would not ignore someone bleeding out their guts, men who reveled in the anarchy of happiness, men who fought because fighting was their only peace, and if it meant being patriotic or righteous along the way, it didn’t matter a jot more than the latest scar shadowing their bloodied smiles.
7th June 1937
Hospital in Madrid
“Viva la Quince Brigada,
rumba la rumba la rumba la.
Viva la Quince Brigada,
rumba la rumba la rumba la.
Que nos cubrirá de gloria
¡Ay Carmela! ¡Ay Carmela!
que nos cubrirá de gloria,
¡Ay Carmela! ¡Ay Carmela!”
Men all around the hotel-turned-hospital sang through purple lips, from behind bandaged eyes and on beds as their legs rotted somewhere on the battlefield.
Indri was on his own bed, a nurse he had gotten to know over the last few days in Madrid was helping him drink whisky. She was watching him, his face writhing from the agony caused from a well-hidden wound.
“You’re watching me.”
“I’m just curious. You don’t look Russian or Irish like all the other men in the brigades.”
“That’s because I’m not.”
“Where are you from, stranger?”
She arched her eyebrows.
“You don’t have to know geography to be a good nurse I suppose.”
“No, you don’t.” She looked at him and smiled with mock anger.
“No, you don’t. Being beautiful is enough. I suppose that’s all you can really do for us here.”
“I don’t think there’s any beauty in this god-forsaken hell.”
“Oh I don’t know. It might not be beautiful. But it’s strangely comforting.”
“Men spilling out their guts on the floor of an old hotel is comforting for you?”
“There is nothing that shouts ‘home!’ louder to me than men spilling out their guts.”
“Home must be a real shit-hole, sorry to say.”
“It is, but I miss it.”
“You’ve been in a lot of wars.”
“How can you tell?”
“Your body is more scarred than my grandfather’s hunting knife.”
“I know. I was talking with George Orwell a few weeks back. You know the guy? English writer, very squeamish, but he’s good for a few drinks. He told me, well, me and the rest of the lads, ‘it’s better to fight and be beaten than not to fight at all.’ Something like that. Now he was being all political and all that, but to me, there’s no greater kick than a good fight.”
“You’ll get killed one day.”
“Sweetheart, I was killed today.”
He smiled and looked up at the ceiling. He closed his eyes and saw the red of the blood dripping from the man’s guts onto the white pavement. He could almost feel the dry heat of his youth.
“No, that’s not true.” He said taking an anguished sip of whisky. “I wasn’t killed today. I was killed almost twenty years ago.” He began talking in a low voice, almost inaudible, like a woman praying in church. “They say four men were killed that day. They’re wrong. I’m the one, the fifth one. It took the man with his guts hanging out a week to die. It took me twenty years. Twenty years.”
“Can I get you another whisky, cariño?”
“No, no point.”
“No harm in getting a little happy in hell.”
“I’m already happy.”
He turned his head away from the nurse and closed his eyes. She went away and left him to his hallucinations. She was haunted by his smile. It reminded her of a lover’s smile. She never knew an anarchist to be so contented.
When she returned to him, his eyes were still closed but his mouth was moving. Hardly a sound came out from his shivering lips. She moved closer and she heard fragments of alien words.
“Sliema ghalic Bandiera taghna!
Lejc inharsu, biex nitghaxxku
Ahna li tasseu Maltin.”