Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

In 2017, Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese anti-corruption activist and investigative journalist, was assassinated with a car bomb. A public inquiry into the assassination found the government of Malta responsible for the killing. In his short story “The Time Is Right About Now,” originally collected by Praspar Press, Alex Vella Gera explores the many social rifts in contemporary Maltese society through his characters’ altercation over the death of the journalist.

On a scenic day, two families come together for a picnic along a natural bay; one family resides in Malta, and the other has returned for a visit after taking up a government post overseas. Layered tension surfaces, from subtle differences in parenting styles to blunt social divisions along political allegiance lines, and mounts in rich, atmospheric scenes. What could have been a cozy reunion of old friends erupts into bloody blows.

Ironically, it is a child who, crouched amid the ancient ruins of a fort and far removed from the scuffling parents, lends the narrative a wider lens. In a moment of pause, she registers the inexplicable pull of the place and its history alongside the thrill of the future that she symbolizes. The child becomes a liminal space and draws out a unique moment in the island nation’s history.

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All night a storm dallied on the periphery, barely sprinkling the islands with rain, and by dawn it had rumbled on its way to Africa, fancying itself some god unknowable to man, leaving behind a spring sun benign and welcoming in a pure azure sky adorned with a few light clouds like cotton threads unraveling delicately. Perfect day for a picnic.

At the far end of a natural bay beside an old military battery that, a sign declares, has been recently restored, a family of three waits near a parked car. After a while they wander off in separate directions, killing time. Like any ten-year-old, the boy is tempted to clamber down the jagged rocks to the sea, but his mother’s curt “Robert!” stops him in his tracks, just as his father, taking a circuitous route around the parking area, empty except for their white Fiat, sidles up to his wife’s side. With a frown, he skims over the sign explaining the history of the battery. She turns her attention from their son to him.

“I hope they get along,” she half tells him, half tells herself.

“You mean like last time?”

“Exactly. Hope it’s not like last time. That boy Luca is…”

She stops herself short, conscious that she sounds like the kind of adult who finds an eleven-year-old despicable.

“Rob likes him,” he says matter-of-factly. She sighs, nods her head abstractly, and bites her lip.

Her husband swipes his phone, relaxed and smiling. Then he grabs her shoulders gently. “Lyd, I promise. It will be a nice day, don’t worry.” And to drum home that he means it, he looks her squarely in the eyes. She looks right back.

“Phil, just no repeat of last time, please. No comments about brownnosing and cushy jobs at the embassy, okay? Charmaine’s my friend.”

On cue, they both catch sight of a silver-gray SUV gliding around the bay and up the road toward them. Inside it, a similar conversation is drawing to a close. Charmaine is begging her husband, Marco, not to bring up politics.

“If he doesn’t, I won’t. But one word from him about Daphne and all that, and I won’t be responsible for my actions.”

“Please. Tomorrow we fly back. Let’s enjoy our last day. There they are.” The SUV practically parks itself next to the other car as Charmaine waves at Philip and Lydia, who wave back. In the back, Luca stares out the window while his older sister, Christine, waves blankly in imitation of her mother.

Marco retorts with a “How’s Malta?” to Philip’s bland “How’s Brussels?” and they laugh off the initial shock of being back in each other’s physical presence. Facebook is where they meet most often nowadays, and it’s not always pleasant. They pat each other on the back, unlike their sons, who keep their distance. Christine, twelve but looking every bit the teenager she yearns to be, leans back against the car, watching the two women greet each other warmly.

Coolers, baskets, and other paraphernalia are pulled out of the car trunks and distributed in such a way that each adult carries a load suited to their size and strength. A couple of minutes of “No, I’ll carry this, it’s too heavy for you” and “That’s okay, I’ll manage” ensue, and the atmosphere of camaraderie between the adults is pleasant. All is well, the sun is shining, the air is cool and fresh, the countryside beckons, and the baskets are heavy with goodness.

They walk in single file up the path that runs from the battery along the cliff edge, bunched up close until, as the hill grows steeper, the children surge ahead. At the summit, the path snakes down slightly where an old World War II bunker stands abandoned. Luca disappears into its dark entrance, yelling, “Cool! Cool!” as he skips down the time-eaten steps, followed dutifully by Robert imitating the other boy’s war cry. His sister waits for the adults by the entrance. Over her shoulder hangs a small handbag, which she opens, fiddles with, then shuts again.

Lydia’s mother-panicked voice echoes down into the bunker, and Robert responds almost immediately. For a short moment, he lingers with Luca in that mysterious semidark space of rusted metal and a cracked concrete roof dripping with humidity before he runs back up into the fresh air. Charmaine does not seem too concerned about her Luca exploring what Lydia considers a potentially dangerous spot. She calls down into the dark entrance, then waits patiently for him to appear. He does so after she yells his name a second time. The boy charges up the steps, out into the sunlight, and heads straight into his father’s arms. Philip steals a glance toward his wife, who ignores him.

A short walk later, the two families reach a spot ideal for their picnic — a small field enclosed on three sides by a low-lying rubble wall with a gorgeous view of St. Paul’s Island below, such that the gently sloping field gives the illusion of a green ramp of swaying grass leading all the way down to the crashing waves and rocks. Along one side, a path winds its way uphill toward where the ruins of a fort stand crumbling in slow time. The adults lay a large blanket on the grass, and it is soon laden with bread, beer, a bottle of wine, soft drinks, a sumptuous salad, a dish of pastizzi, and more. They are in good spirits as they unpack the food, pour wine, share some banter, and watch the three children who have run off to play on the path.

Luca leads the way, charging into some undergrowth, picking up a sturdy stick from the ground and brandishing it like a weapon. He commands Robert to follow him and obey his orders, and the younger boy does as he is told. Christine is reluctant to join in, feeling too old for such make-believe, and she soon wanders back to the adults, where she eats for a while. Bored with the two boys but equally uninterested in the adults, she asks her mother for her phone, then goes off to one side, lies in the grass, and disappears into the mobile phone screen.

This prompts the adults to discuss mobile phones and their kids. The contrast between the two families creates some tension, but each couple plays it down with an overly respectful tone in relation to the other’s parenting choices. Philip and Lydia think Robert is far too young to have a phone, while Marco and Charmaine are more liberal in their views, claiming Christine is better off now that she owns her phone because it empowers her, and Luca will be getting one for his birthday in a few months. On cue, a phone pings crisply. Marco pulls out his iPhone, and Philip, with a sideways glance, is clearly curious to see what his friend is doing. He sees the Facebook-Messenger blue and fights the urge to lean over to get a better look while Marco laughs to himself as he reads the message he has just received. Charmaine gently touches his arm, and Marco shows her his phone, prompting her to chuckle too. They do not share what is so funny with their friends, and Philip and Lydia pretend to ignore the whole thing. A slightly uncomfortable silence gathers between them, which is fortunately broken by a child’s wail.

Philip jumps to his feet, instinctively knowing it is his son, Robert, screaming. He finds him pinned to the ground by Luca. Marco follows close behind, with Lydia and Charmaine trailing while Christine barely looks up, deeply engrossed in her phone.

Philip pulls Luca off Robert a bit too roughly, as much to rescue his son as to show the other boy who’s boss. Instantly, Marco springs into action and grabs Luca from Philip. There is tension between the two men as the boy runs off unadmonished, which only intensifies as Robert, crying, seeks sympathy from his father, pointing to a small cut on his hand.

“I have blood, look!” he wails.

They all return to the picnic area, and Luca tags along behind the rest. The two mothers insist that the two boys sit together and eat something. There is a short speech about how they should both apologize to each other.

“But I didn’t do anything!” Robert insists, a sense of injustice causing his eyes to tear up again. Out of the blue, Christine comes over and asks for a sip of wine. Marco obliges, filling a plastic cup with a finger of the dark liquid. This shocks Philip and Lydia somewhat, and Charmaine, noticing their reaction, explains that they are trying to treat her like a mature young adult. “You need to allow kids their freedom these days. It’s not like when we were young.”

Lydia partially agrees, “but there are so many dangers nowadays.” Christine winces as she sips the wine, listening carefully to what is being said.

As the boys, newly friends, jump back to their feet and run off, a “Be good, no fighting!” trailing behind them, conversation turns to comparisons between the school Luca and Christine attend in Brussels and Robert’s school in Malta, and from there it soon takes a detour through education in Malta in general, which automatically but undesirably leads to words said about the current state of the country, meaning, naturally, politics. This alarms Charmaine, who looks Lydia’s way, her eyes silently pleading with her friend to help her out. The two men are behaving, though. They stick to niceties and a vague meeting of minds about the backwardness of most Maltese, which they both can agree on. Then Lydia nudges Philip to go play with the boys, and Marco shows his agreement with the plan by struggling to his feet. The two men head toward their sons, who are out of their line of sight, while Lydia turns her attention to Christine, asking her questions about life in Brussels, the weather, and whether she misses Malta, ending with the obligatory “You’re growing so quickly, dear; I remember you as a baby.” Christine delivers monosyllabic replies, without tearing her eyes away from the phone, and Lydia is secretly disappointed with her friend, who does not push her daughter to make an effort and be more sociable. Finally, Charmaine asks her to hand the phone back, declaring screen time over. Christine does so without a word, stretches, and wanders off.

The men catch sight of the boys at the far end of the path, worryingly close to the edge of the field and an abrupt drop of several meters. They are playing a strange game, where Luca is giving Robert instructions about which direction to walk. Robert’s eyes are tightly shut, disarmingly trusting of Luca, who is overjoyed to see the men approaching and begs them to join in the game. Hearing this, Robert opens his eyes, upon which Luca admonishes him, quite brutally. Philip expects Marco to correct his son, but he does not. Instead, he praises Luca’s inventiveness for coming up with such a “cool” game. Philip tells his son to stay away from the edge, then reluctantly agrees to join in. Robert insists he wants to give instructions and not receive them, like Luca.

The two men, eyes shut, are directed by Robert into wandering in all sorts of directions that turn in on themselves as they go around in jagged loops. Then Luca whispers in his ear and takes over. He cheekily leads them closer to the edge as a general excited air about the boys intensifies. Philip’s eyes are slits as he plays along while keeping a close lookout on his position in relation to the edge. Marco, he assumes, is doing the same.

Meanwhile, Christine has wandered off up the path that leads to the top of the hill to the ruined fort. She is slightly tipsy from the wine she was allowed to drink and a bit dazed from having been glued to her phone screen for so long. The environment around her feels intensely real as she heads up the hill. She looks around her, stops to investigate a strangely shaped overhanging rock, and looks back at her footprints in the dust. Having climbed quite high up, she has a good view of the landscape below. She can see the mothers in the picnic area and, some ways down, the two boys and the fathers playing. Behind them, St. Paul’s Island receives the caresses of crashing waves.

Charmaine and Lydia are happy to be free of children and husbands, and chat away as they look up toward Christine, who is now a small figure slowly trudging up the hill. Charmaine shouts at the top of her voice, and Lydia flinches.

“Chri! Don’t go far!”

From her vantage point, Christine turns her back on the scene far below, just as her mother’s faint voice reaches her, and she heads on up into an area of broken stonework, rusting metal, and general debris. The random nature of the detritus around the ruins lulls her into a sense of calm submission.

Urged on by Luca, Robert now joins the game as one of the “blind” ones, as Luca barks new orders. Philip realizes that the edge is far too close for him to obey. He opens his eyes and turns away, fully expecting Marco to do likewise. But to his horror, he spies Robert innocently taking a couple more steps toward where the field ends and the land drops off. He lunges forward, grabbing and tearing him away in time. He does so in a panic and roughly, at which Robert cries out in fright and pain. But his father is not finished. He then takes a few bold steps toward Luca and grabs him by the scruff of the neck, furious at what his sinister game has almost led to, convinced the boy did it willfully. Marco, dazed for a moment or two, quickly jumps to his son’s defense, and the two men’s bodies make contact. First accidentally, then deliberately, they come to blows, as Luca, shaken and in slight pain where Philip had grabbed him, and Robert, who is sobbing, watch in shock as their fathers wrestle to the grassy earth. They land clumsy blows on each other, grunting and trading insults.

It takes a short while for the women to notice what is going on, to rush to the scene and then prize them apart, to the tune of two crying boys, because at the sight of his father getting hit squarely in the face, Luca joins Robert in a wailing contest. The two men wobble to their feet, rageful eyes burning with hate for each other. The women, confused by this sudden turn of events, feel their happy, sunny, picnicky mood dissolve, and they stand by their respective men to avoid getting caught in the crossfire of insults.

“Fuck you, man, you and your fucking son. Fucking entitled motherfuckers.”

“Fuck you, self-righteous shit.”

“You’d excuse your son even if he murdered someone. Always an excuse. Anything goes, right? You fucking corrupt fucker.”

“Yes, sure, bring fucking Daphne into this. That’s all you do these days. Daphne this. Daphne that. As if I killed her.”

“Your beloved fucking government did. The people you wank for day in, day out on fucking Facebook did.”

“Fuck you.”

There’s a trail of blood running down Marco’s nose, which he wipes with the back of his hand, leaving a sizable swath of his face blood-stained as Lydia pulls Philip away, whispering in his ear. Charmaine notices this, and her eyebrows curl upward, sending an accusatory stare toward her friend, which Lydia ignores. With Robert sobbing as he trails behind, his parents head to the picnic area, where Lydia begins to pack, anxious and wordless, careful not to touch any of the stuff belonging to the other two, who stand some distance away, watching, with Luca still sobbing, holding tight to his father.

“Where’s Christine?” Charmaine asks no one in particular, and Marco swings into action. Any excuse to get away.

“I’ll go get her. Go and pack, Char. Luca, stay here.”

He heads up the path, calling out his daughter’s name at regular intervals.

Having ventured deep into the ruins, she does not hear him. There she sits on a wobbly stone, soaking in the decay and the silence and her place in it, both as an observer and an intruder, as well as an intrinsic part of the world that the ruins belong in. In this place, which bears no relation to her life, her parents, her brother, or her friends, she senses a widening gap into which she is slowly but steadily slipping. She feels this subconsciously, totally unaware as to why a deep and heavy melancholia has come to rest upon her like a blanket while at the same time a sharp stab of ecstatic exhilaration runs up her spine. On the surface, she wants nothing more than to be back home with her friends, and she wishes she had her phone with her. But lingering just beneath this desire, a vast shadow slumbers into wakefulness. The wobbly stone seems to have a life of its own, and she almost tumbles backward. Standing up, unsure of what to do next, teetering on the very edge of the present tense, she hears her father shout her name. Chri! Chri! An alien sound, not a name but an animal call. Chri! Chri!

She instinctively crouches behind a cracked wall and waits for something to happen.

Excerpted from Scintillas: New Maltese Writing and written by Alex Vella Gera. Published in 2021 by Praspar Press, which describes itself as “a micro-publisher created to support contemporary Maltese literature written in English and English translation.”

Alex Vella Gera

Alex Vella Gera was born in 1973 in Malta, bang in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. After a childhood and adolescence in isolated daydreaming, he packed his bags and moved to Prague, where he made one important acquaintance: himself. It was there that he first started to write in his mother tongue (Maltese) instead of the long-preferred English. Three decades and three novels in Maltese later, with Prague a distant memory and Brussels his home for more than fifteen years, he is approaching the English language with fresh eyes and a renewed sense of adventure.