Malta Diary Last embers of a rapidly dying era?
It was not so many years ago that I spent a hot summer’s day with family and friends at Armier Bay, one of our small number of sandy bays. The heat was suffocating (although I never venture far away from a shady umbrella) and the noise revelry of screaming kids and shouting adults deafening.
At some stage in the mid-morning I wandered away along a stony dirt-track between fields, seeking the shade of a carob tree and some peace and quiet. An old man was tilling a field with an old-fashioned hoe, clunking and clunking the bone hard clumps soil solidified by lack of moisture.
I could have stepped back a few hundred years in history. He wore a tattered, flat cap that had seen better days, a faded flannel shirt and a pair of battered and threadbare trousers whose leg-bottoms had been roughly cut away. It was held around his waist with a piece of rope.
His wrinkled face, arms, hands and bare feet were baked brown through sun exposure, the skin like shrivelled parchment. I estimated he was in his mid-70s. Between his crackled lips he chewed on a cigar stub and as I lit up one of my cigarettes I did the civil thing and offered him one.
He shook his head; he only smoked cigars, one of the cheap cigars very much favoured by down-at-heel bus drivers and cabbies, smelling like a mixture of burnt socks and horse manure.
“It’s damned hot” I said, by way of broaching conversation.
He nodded briefly showing agreement.
“It always is in summer” he replied philosophically, clearly indicating I had stated the more than obvious.
“Yesterday’s television forecast said a worse heat wave was on the way” I persisted.
Again he nodded and confirmed it would last a few days not because the television forecast had said so – he had no television – but because he knew. He had no electricity either and, slowly, he began to unburden information.
Together with his wife he had lived in that small farmhouse over there, he pointed, where he was actually born. His wife had died ten years ago; they were childless. They lived off the land, kept a few chickens, rabbits and goats which supplied milk from which they made their own goat’s milk cheeselettes. They kept perishable foodstuffs by lowering buckets into a deep well with cold water as the preservation agent. His wife walked to the nearby village of Mellieha (a few kilometres away) and back once a month to buy essentials, including a monthly box of cigars. They heard Sunday Holy Mass in the small chapel nearby, a priest from Mellieha conducting the ceremony. Now, once every three months or so he hitched his donkey and small cart and went to Mellieha to make a few purchases.
He had never been in an automobile and had never climbed into a public bus.
Amazed, I asked whether he had ever been anywhere else throughout his life. Yes, he had once walked to Valletta (35 kilometres away) and back and had been astounded to see so many people, so much traffic and so much hustle and bustle that he had made up his mind to never go again. The confusion had left him stunned for several days he said vehemently. Once he had walked to Sliema (25 kilometres) and back too but found that equally confusing.
A nearby fisherman neighbour gave him occasional supplies of fish that were too small to sell and from which he made fish soup. Every evening he was fast asleep by 9pm and up again at 4am to prepare for a day’s work on his two fields and made a little amount of money from selling fresh produce to passers-by. He stopped for ten minutes every morning at 8am to say the daily prayer and stopped again at noon to recite the Angelus. He had never read a book or a newspaper because he was illiterate and had never been to school.
Civic matters and politics did not interest him at all. “They are only there to steal money from honest folk” was his verdict.
It was as fascinating as having stepped back a few hundred years. I was tempted to think of going back and giving him some money but surmised he would probably take that as an offence. We bid our farewells and I trundled back deep in thought and returned to the hustle and bustle of a world of booming music, blaring car horns and “thieving” politicians.
A couple of years later I went back to Armier and remembered the old man but sadly he had passed away. The farmhouse was uninhabited and the fields dormant with a crop of withered and parched weeds.
Unfortunately, agriculture in Malta and Gozo are on a down slope as the old ones pass away. Youngsters will in no way contemplate a hard life in the fields subject to the whims of the weather and market pressures when they can work in a factory or an office and be able to buy fast cars, I-phones and computers. At the time when the old man would have been preparing to sleep they would be sprucing themselves up to go to the local disco and at his 4am waking time they would be befuddling their way back home for a few hours sleep and another hectic day tomorrow.
Much of what remains is mainly horticulture and mechanised and the greens and fruit import market is ever-growing.
The old man was one of the few remaining embers of a dying era.