The train comes by at seven minutes to eight, sweeping before it the weariness and the crumbs of toast clinging to people’s lips. It chases away the dreams and the nightmares, the morning breath. For a few seconds, it drives the silence before it to make room for itself, then it leaves and the emptiness it leaves in its wake is invaded by the same silence, or another just like it. Rita turns up at six minutes to eight, the coat she bought from Petticoat Lane the previous winter hanging limp about her, with crumbs of toast on her lapels, bad dreams in her mouth, eyes misted over with the smells of curry and basmati rice. The train arrives just a few seconds after she turns up on the platform in Stepney Green, on the green line, direction Ealing Broadway. It drives the silence before it and she allows it all to invade her. She doesn’t move. People scurry past her like rats, some making for a carriage, some for another, some for the staircase. After a few seconds the doors all slam shut at the same time and the train leaves. Rita renders the silence back. Two small mice come out for a bit of food they’d come across before the train arrived and hadn’t had the time to gnaw through. She sits down on one of the chairs bolted to the wall covered with filthy white tiles. There’s a Metro on the chair next to hers and she picks it up, glances at the daily dose of gossip, colourless, like the night. Like Salvu, she thinks. Salvu’s like the night and the Metro’s like Salvu who’s like the night.
At four minutes to eight another train stops. This time she gets on. The paper is left behind. She sits on the first seat she finds. There’s a paper on the seat next to hers; she picks it up. It’s identical to the one she left behind at the station and she carries on reading. Where had she left off? Megan, still missing, apparently scarpered off to Italy with her Maths teacher.
Two stops later -- Aldgate East -- after exactly four minutes and 56 seconds, she gets off. The Metro she leaves behind on the seat. She gets to her feet. With one step, two steps, she gets off the train and stops short. Waits, as people push past her in a hurry. Waits, as people throw her dirty looks because she’s stood in the middle and they need to get a move on. Waits, as the train collects more weariness and more dirty boots. It’s raining out. She waits, as the train leaves and her coat is whipped about her, to the left. Then a silence engulfs her for 20 seconds. A first step, then another, little by little she begins to climb the stairs, a trail of silence in her wake, until she’s outside in the rain. She opens the umbrella bought from Whitechapel a year ago. Need to get a new one soon. She starts walking towards the school: Whitechapel road, turning off into a passage that takes her right to the school. The passage where Jack the Ripper murdered his first victim, Martha Tabram. It takes her right to the street where the school is: Canon Barnett Primary School. It’s seven past eight. The bell goes off at half past. Up the stairs to the main door. She closes her umbrella and leaves it at the door. Behind her, the racket the children make shakes the walls of the main hall as she walks along the corridor, making her way into the refectory. The smell of detergent greets her as she walks across to the kitchen. Linda’s reading the Metro and drinking her coffee, Mornin’ Rita, yo’ coffee’s waitin’. She goes and pours herself some coffee. Had a bad dream? No Linda. How you feelin’ this mornin’? No’ bad Linda. An’ you? I’m all right. Rainin’ innit! Yes Linda. Bloody weather this, innit?
A short excerpt from Rita translated by Albert Gatt. Published in Kulħadd Ħalla Isem Warajh (Merlin Publishers, 2006)
Once upon a time, high up in a looking-glass sky, a big bird flew by. Delightedly swooping high, the bird tried to spy a spot where to kip after a rather long trip.
"No, no, mamà, that's not how the story begins." "How, then, Klarissa?"
Once upon a time, a small bird flew by.
Well, it wasn’t all that small. But it wasn’t all that big either.
He'd got lost somewhere high in the sky. And he swooped up and down trying to spy ...
"No, no Klarissa, that's not how the story begins." "How, then, Melissa?"
Once upon a timea hunter drove by on a scooter with a plum-coloured shooter in hand.In the looking-glass skywas a rose-tinted birdnot that small, not that big.
It was just flying by.
But the hunter spotted himand raised his shooter on the fly and fired.
An excerpt from Mingu translated by Albert Gatt. Illustrated by Lisa Falzon (Merlin Publishers, 2015)
I, the witness
her body felt cumbersome pointless she was laughing and screaming and called andrè to tell him their marriage was destined to be no more than a pencilled scrawl but andrè didn’t understand and then fully clothed a drenched dance in the bathtub on the table on the couch on the windowsill where she munched on lots of carrots and felt her legs growing longer and touching the street below to the verses of carlos’s poems and all the feelings they engendered she flicked away borne on the ashes from a pack of twentytwenty fags’ worth of feeling had ebbed away by dusk and her legs dangling six storeys above street level hadn’t grown any longerwhere are they definitely had another pack maybe on the windowsill probably wondering whether or not to take the plunge or then again in the bath cleansing themselves of my sinsso she called them and prayed it wouldn’t be last night’s man at their endhelp me she told the tired voice. I wantI wantwhen she calmed down she fell asleep blanketed by the ash of burnt poems the smoke waking her up quite late the next morning to tap another dream into her laptop and that done it was her hair long strands of hair shorn off as she danced with the scissors among the wedding gifts from it seemed so long ago swaying as she had done that day glass of red in hand while she nibbled cauliflower blossoms which who knows might make the hair grow back in curls rose-scented with the memories of othertimeand then he turns up“The fuck’s going on? you out of your fucking mind? This place reeks of alcohol and what’s with all the hair? The fuck’s this all about?”Bang goes the fridge door.“Listen, you listen to me.”Bang goes the fridge door.“You do this one more time and I’ll fucking kill you.”the dress dangling from the ceiling slowly swung in the breeze airing out thirteen years’ worth of damp and mouldI was the witnessI’d just bent over to scrawl my presence at this lily-infested ritual in an abandoned chapel when I noticed that the pen’s blue trace was invisible on the paper the priest already blushing as I straightened up pen in surprised hand she naturally burst out laughing and then a rush to the sacristy and another pen this one just as hapless and following an urgent appeal from the lectern and the handbagged hands of women rustling finally pencil ok naturally she laughed even louder I was the first witness to sign in pencilI guess it’s lost what little colour it had so many years later and a marriage isn’t valid without a signature from the witness her laughter still rings in my ears but she probably doesn’t know that as when the photographer managed to freeze-frame my discoloured countenance against her radiant features bursting with sudden suppressed emotion engulfing her all at oncethey’ve been scattered all over the floor so many years latermoment by momentlike a trail of sequins falling one by one beneath the dress throughout the reception held on the tiny parapet because every other hall was booked on the day“Have you heard? He passed away this morning.”“Yes, I heard they’re burying him tomorrow.”“Don’t think I’ll go.”“Up to you really. You’re free as a wedding dress that was bought never to be worn.”“Everybody thought well of Patri Feliċ. He was humble as his sandal-clad feet.”“Wonder what his epitaph will read? Here lies the love that bound 33 couples all of whom have untied the knot.”There’s a little window in the front door you can spy through. That evening’s snatches of time, all laid to rest on the floor and she the guard, jealously keeping watch. She was completely out of control that night. Every moment, even the ones she’d wanted to keep for herself, had been captured by the photographer. Now it’s she who’s stopping the moments in their tracks.Because she wants to.I’d knock on the door, but my hands refuse to budge. I imagine her saying “Come on in and drop your signature, I like your signature.”They were clearly visible on the floor, laid to rest. You could see them all through the little window in the front door.The wedding dress dangles from a ceiling beam, and stares pointedly at me.The rope looks thick and heavy. Plaited, it reminds me of the one my father uses to lower the pail into the garden well. The freeze-framed faces on the floor are looking my way, calling to me to enter, drop a signature.I, the witness.Today, once more.The gentle current breezing in through the back is swinging her gently back and forth.I can’t get inside, the door is locked.I slip my hand into my pocket, without knowing why.
A short excerpt from I, the witness translated by Albert Gatt. Published in Il-Linja l-Ħadra (Merlin Publishers, 2006)
When Ronald turns up, I’ve no room to even think. He just talks me out. Total verbal diaorrhea.
“So what about that bet, Ro? A hundred. I could ’and them over now if you want.”
“I think they went to the playing field.”
“So what’re you waiting for?”
“Nah, let it go. My uncle’s waiting for me. We got a couple of new cars today. We’ve got loads of work right now. Folk just keep crashing.”
I’ve known ’im since I was a little girl. Ever the talker. His mum says ’e was already blabbin’ away at four months. Completely useless at anythin’ else. Just eats ’is pastizzi and bothers me. Sometimes I don’t mind ’im, ’cause it does get pretty borin’ some days. At least when ’e comes over, the shop’s full of ’is hot air. Other times, I don’t want ’im around. Today’s one of those times. But I can’t drive ’im away. No way, ’e’s been ’angin about ’ere all ’is life! Who knows ’ow many times we played together with pastry balls and flour.
“Give us a pizza, Ai.”
“’aven’t you just eaten three pastizzi?”
“Yeah, but I’m still peckish. Those two, they’ve really turned me on.”
“Can’t understand why you’re still ’anging around ’ere, then.”
“Listen, Aileen, you wouldn’t want to go watch a movie one of these days, would you?”
“Will you listen to this guy today. ’e’s got nothing better to do, it seems.”
“Who d’you ’ave in mind?”
“You and me, obviously.”
“Weren’t you going to ask one of those two?”
“Oh, I can ask them too, later. Just thought I’d start with you, like.”
“Come on, just the once.”
“Cut it out, Ro, ok?”
“I ’eard there’s a really good one on.”
“Really? Which one?”
“’ow should I know? I’ve forgotten what it’s called.”
“So ’ow’re we gonna go watch it?”
“Ah, you’ve ’ad more school than me, you’re good at readin’ and stuff, right, why don’t you choose? One that’s got a lot of fightin’ and stuff.”
“Gotta ask da first.”
“Come on, forget about your da.”
“But why don’t you go ask those two ’otties?”
“Weren’t they ’eading for the playing field? It’s pretty close. Just go. And take your pick.”
“My, it’s late, ’e’s gonna kill me. Listen, so it’s a plan, right? You’re gonna ask your old man.”
And off ’e goes. Not in the direction of the playin’ field, obviously, but in the direction of the garage.
I don’t like ’im that way. I don’t like ’im at all. Bit too slow for me. And ’is fingers are always black. I’d go for someone better. Someone a bit less shallow. But whatever. When I was in my Fifth I’d hear ’em talk about the clubs in Paceville and so on. But my weekends were spent making pastry. That bastard always kept me ’ere. And then I lost everything. They all left. Some of ’em carried on with school and some of ’em got jobs. I don’t go with ’em to Paceville, do I?
An excerpt from Frape, a novel for teenagers. Translated by Albert Gatt. (Merlin Publishers, 2012)
Naughty little Rubber Stamp got a birthday gift from Gramp, little letters she could print in all sizes, every tint.
Now she’s covered head to toe with those letters high and low which she’s printed on her lips, on her cheeks, her sides, her hips.
Starting with the letter A, that’s what she heard mummy say! A for angel, apple, ape, A for act-and-then-escape.
Next she finds the letter B, that one’s easy – B’s for bee! B for ball, for buttered bread, B for bundled-off-to-bed.
C goes on her little finger. That’s for cat – his name is Clinger, chocolate chip or cherry cake, crunchy sugar-coated flake.
an excerpt from Naughty little Rubber Stamp, translated by Albert Gatt. Illustrated by Derek Fenech (Merlin Publishers, 2011)