The airport is small, as you might expect it to be, a calling card of buildings plonked on a low ridge. Could this really have been the fulcrum of epic battles for empire and Christendom? A soldier with an automatic weapon slung over his shoulder spits on the tarmac as a motorised pinnace brings out steps to the aeroplane. Already I have the feeling of being back, if not in the profligate gore of far centuries, in at least the nineteen-sixties. The landscape as seen from the air was not totally bereft of colour yet suggested a faded technicolor print of itself: trees washed out to barely green, buildings resigned to the fact that camel-hair brown can only be stacked three-storeys high, misshapen rocks that don't sparkle in afternoon haze. I half expect David Niven, toting pale lilac cravat and stoic grimace, to pop out from behind a palm-tree (outlined in the dim and unwanted shades of the last crayons in the box) and ask me what the jolly heck by jove I'm doing here, or Gina Lollobrigida bestrapped by sunglasses and bandeau bikini to glance dismissively from her observation deck sun-lounge and order another cocktail from the off-white waiter.
The immigration officer asks if it's my first time in Malta then stamps my passport before I can reply. Yes. The ring of ink glares regardless. The tourist information office is open but closed. "He'll be back soon," says another armed layabout. He's not back within ten minutes anyway and I decide to find for myself a bus. I walk through the signless sixties until I see something that resembles a bus stop and the bus duly arrives shortly after, an out-of-puff Bedford Dupliant. The grinding of gears registers a small result on the Richter scale as we set off and echoes taxi drivers gnashing their yellow-brick-road teeth at me paying twenty cents for the journey instead of eight pounds.
Just twenty cents. Only three hundred and sixteen square kilometres of land. Barely four hundred thousand people proclaiming themselves to be an independent country. Only forty percent self-sufficient in food. Three islands worthy of the name and a few rocks breaching the cosmic blue of the Mediterranean. Highest point a goatherd's bored throw above sea level. The numbers are small, small, small; even huddled together for comfort they barely seem capable of confronting the credulity that there is anything here at all.
A cough surges out of Purgatory and collapses me like a cheap beach chair; Dragunara Road goes vertical and the dust tastes like dust; a doctor diagnoses secondary infection of the whatsit; for three days there's nothing but staring at the roof of my room. Exotic kickshaws such as the candy-coit qaghaq ta l-ghasel, supposedly easier to digest than pronounce, must wait while I plough through a capsuled cocktail of antibiotics. Absurdly, these are the moments of which travel is made; too easy the shufti in the Uffizi, the aircon express to Ljubljana arrowing between field-scratching peons, the all-under-one-roof craft village, the lost luggage recovered in less than a day, the faultlessly-translated menus of expat-islands, the guide gilt-tongued in five languages. No, it's when some carelessly broken fruit sends you reeling to the slimy latrines at midnight, when the bus conductor is perched on a devil's pyramid of boxes in the aisle so he can stuff his hands pathetically into the hole in the roof to staunch the rain, when the penalty for going through the wrong exit door is a rifle in the ribs and three hours of cowering, it's in these times you know you are really Away, Abroad, Abandoned to the capriciousness of wildcat train strike or Maoist putsch. Every journey worth the name is inscribed in the cringing of bowels.
Innards and rest of me are jammed into an apartment on the fifth floor of a hotel - and I use the term loosely - in St Julians. Somehow the decor survived post-seventies purges although it appears a succession of tenants have whittled away at the kitchen utensils. A cutting knife, for example, might be useful but there is none. I hack haplessly at an onion with a butter knife until the both of us are weeping. The right window refuses to kiss and make up with his left sister, thus leaving a channel for mosquitoes of the gregarious sort. As the Indonesians say, there was only one but he brought his friends. The television has no remote control and all the button-pressing of legions provides nothing other than unlikely Maltese infomercials for carpet cleaners. A nuclear fail-safe sequence of light switches is required to spark the reading lamp into life but this is inadequate to transport me far into the disconsolate world of Francis Webb. The book slips from my hand as various planned excursions slip out of the range of possibility and become one with the sea, unworriedly filling a horizon gap between a red-rug casino and one of Vivaldi's lesser seasons.
By day three the travel rations brought from Italy are exhausted. I venture out and run the gauntlet of convenience wedded to expediency. I shall not want for precisely the things I do not want: chocolate bars, dried biscuits, Halter bonbons, tinned potato chips, unsly grog from Swedish bog beer to tipplers' miniatures, chewing gum, fresher mints, the whole lot hocked by Joe, copied by Abdul and replicated by balding Brian on the next corner. My saving grace is a fruit vendor who, between throwing soggy strawberries at a skateboard crew providing Urban Defacement Services, plies me with grapes, bananas and oranges enough to tide me over. I hear some Maltese words barked sharply from a five-hundred-year-old cannon and they're probably not vocab tidbits suitable for postcarding home to mum. The fruit tastes like stiff water, the air crumples stiffly from lack of moisture. My faithful ceiling offers me again its blank canvas upon which to faintly outline the crusader battlements I cannot see.
Suddenly I'm up and forcing myself perversely to see something, anything other and more than the still-life rectangle conjured by my implacable windows. There's Marsaxlokk and its Lego-boat harbour fringed by dead fish staring glassily forever. There're the balcony-fringed streets of Valletta, too precipitous to give full symphonic backing to the meticulous grid layout. Pock-marked bastions spill over with tightly-clinging weeds and the resignation of being admiringly sighed at for the millionth time. There's the Centru Laburista bar pouring Nescafe for twenty-five cents into the cups of never-were-revolutionaries. There're the glowing streets of the old capital still haunted by leering gargoyles and the whiff of gunpowder stockpiles. From the citadel of Mdina other villages shimmer and give way to other villages, an écru horizon carved out of yak butter.
On, on, the ferry from Sliema that leaves Captain Morgan touts in my wake, the cranes of irrepressible commerce, the noonday biddies collecting sun and hours in eyes dim, the Three Cities poking their slivered tongues into the sacred blue of the Grand Harbour. High upon the pentagonal cavaliers, where once signal fires indicated enemy approach, two goats chomp uncritically on wild-sown grass. The Castellano's residence is closed, the panorama open and loudly announcing mega-yachts for the mega-idle from its wide angles. I tiptoe by the Sacra Infermeria, a hospital of the Knights that, with the war business going through a cyclic downturn 1652, was turned into a convent. Benedictine nuns still abide by their world-eschewing vows, never seen, never heard, never photographed by he turning this way and that from Chiaramonte relic to cat filling the lustrous interlude between flowerpot and doorway. The flowers chuckle softly at the monotone limestone and chant swoon before my voluptuous pink, covet the riches of my pure gold, swoon ...
Through veil of -ycins and heavy tissues I notice that every house has a name. Even the most modest refuge has there beside the door a brief epithet in serious letters of nostalgia or private fancy: Eureka, Casa Salvatore, Sydney, Delphinium, Ontess, Vulcan, Mercì, Oberammergan, Soleado, The Aztec, Ta' Ging, Azur, Prinjol, North Star, Hurricane, Emerald, Qalb Ta-Marija, Polmar, Millennium. And if I had a residence here, what would it be called? Prone? Unforsaken? Wistful? Passer-by? I pass Wignacourt's miraculous aqueduct, now channeling only sightlines from the central plateau to the inevitable sea and its endless boulevarde of lycra-strapped girls striding for health and tottering pommies gasping for the revitalisation of sea air.
On, on, the bus that hurtles through every rut as its gramophone wheels play the teeny-town tunes of Madliena, Qawra, Bugibba, Xemxija, Melieha and finally the land's-end port of Cirkewwa. Ferry ushers me past the crouching turtle of Comino Island and on to Gozo, wobbly legs send me winding between olives and vines sprouting from lost-my-balance hillsides. At Gigantija, the prehistoric boil on the lip of Xaghra, I'm prepared for a pile of rocks. And so it is, but what sublime rocks! Every megalith begs a story, every block rolled into place five thousand years ago dares to speculate. The altars are long since dry of blood and the roof support beams have rotted to delusion. Yet the encroachment of poppies, daisies and other opportunistic seed heads offers hope; the people died out but life as life did not. See the sunlight passing lithely through the passageways of priests! Marvel at the balance of stone piled on boulder propping up the platinum chambers of heaven itself! I catch my breath and inhale deeply of the dulcet vales draped below, expanding in turn inside of me. Bigger now, the rapture and ruin of aeons at my feet, I am finally awake and upright, beanstalk surging in exuberance. I find my place, the place of giants indeed.
I rise up through Victoria's fabulously walled city and its antechamber mapped by children bouncing between ghostly icons, idle sulkies and doors worshipping viridity. I am tall enough to stand square against row after row of bus-shelter balconies, plinth elegant and pouting with pride. Balconies are for laundry, for conversation, for allowing the still air of December to be toasted by leisurely degrees, for odds and ends, for the lazy curl of straw blinds, for painting from the inside with languorous strokes and drips of carelessness, for pot plants, for maintaining one's detachment from the hoi-polloi heading home to stand, in turn, in their own glassed domain. Or in the case of the Casa Viani, the balcony is for defenestrating the French Commander and hence sparking a general uprising against the occupation. These people stood up on their handkerchief isles again and again: in 1565 against the Turkish invasion, during the Second World War against the German blitz, endlessly and uprighteously against a tide of foreign pickpockets, Papal khedives, imperial carpetbaggers and the meagre providence of their cactus-crowned rock.
I could be as shipwrecked as Paul, dubitable chronicler and saint-to-be run aground in AD 60. Presumably he didn't land with a fistful of counterfeit banknotes like the stubbly boys (Albanian? Tunisian?) trying to pass bodgy twenties in a nightclub framed by a semi-naked fire-eater upside down on a trapeze. The boys pretend it was all a silly-ho-ho mistake and move on to flush the dosh elsewhere. Probably they don't reach the souvenir shops populated by bus miniatures (lovingly crafted but without the loaded eccentricity of the real thing, e.g. a hand-made sticker "Meet Me Half-Way" emblazoned on the windshield or a clock improbably truncated at 3:33 forever), jokey tea towels, museum piece replicas, plaster Osiris eyes and the layered beauties of Gozo glass. Having relatives in Australia - possibly those dislocated Malts who hacked at my ankles on the unfenced fields of suburban under-twelve soccer - he is able to advise me that Gozo glass is the ideal gift for my mother, sister, girlfriend, neighbour's budgie, etc. I succumb to mum and he inspects the bill under a blacklight. It's good. I reel out into the light, the steep alleys and wheel ruts of San Ġwann and the ultimate exhibition of cockily-draped cats as urban decoration.
I know someone will ask me, even after all photographs have been exhaustively sifted for traces of the living, what the Maltese are like. From my vantage points - balcony, park bench, fifth row of bus, mediaeval parapet deflecting morning sun not arrows - I can do little other than examine the parade of faces. Italo-Norman, Turk, modern Greek, mediterraneo classico, Arab half-breed, Cypriot or compulsive gambler, flouncing ode to hair-care products, self-muzzled catechumen, extirpated Brit, Russian rigour scowling from a hired wagon, hooked nose bent over blow-dried moustache, tears of no-rage dried to resemble eye patches of faithful pooch, squinting fisherman, sage of rocks and gravel, woman with cheeks sectionable as tree trunks for deciphering her years. The faces weave their tapestry, each individually-crafted thread but a shade of the whole. If only I could stand back far enough to see it! The only meaningful distance will be my departure.
Gone like a stolen kiss, I'm out of the hotel while the streetsweepers still tend the detritus of the night before. Goodbye mosquitoes, well-examined ceiling and the mock imperial demeanour of a time writhing in Other. When I get into the taxi the driver already has a half-smoked, half-chewed cigar wedged between his fingers. It's a plectrum he uses to play the steering wheel across road lanes, turning a modest duet of early traffic into a lively five-piece with big band kick out of the curves. Occasionally he lights it up, long enough to satisfy himself that his hacking cough has not gone away, then stubs it out on the dashboard. For the first time I'm aware of industrial suburbs, crouched under bridges and behind embankments as if terminally on the run from public consciousness.
Airport again, the unavoidable closure of the parenthesis. The immigration officer is bored already and there's still six hours at least to oily lunch. Exited Malta blah-blah, the ink is just as clear and irreversible. A week already? Somehow I'm bigger now, reduced in health but grown in spirit. I get barely one tender foot in the door of the plane and the rest of Malta rides with me beseeching a tag-along lift and a memory. You'll have it. They nod, giants all in a row, their massive foreheads bowing to almost kiss the waves. By George, says Niven nipping out from behind the palm for a whistled toodle-pip, by George you'll have it.