You will know when it exists -- Obscure journalism direct from our man on the ground.

Monday, 1 April 2013

The Maltese Talkin' - Chapter 4 - The Bowling Community









Chapter 4.

Apart from three days a week of work at the alley, I had no other commitments, appointments or incoming phone calls. No connections. No one in the whole country had any idea who I was. 

The Luxury of Nothing was that it left me completely flexible. There was no pressure to do anything or be anything in particular. I wasn’t so and so’s friend, I wasn’t that ladies’ son, I was nobodies’ brother or sister. I had all the time in the world, all to myself, and I could do whatever I wanted with it. Four days off a week meant I had enough time to wake up late and have Spaghetti Bolognese for breakfast. Singing. I could wander the stony countryside that was succumbing to the new season’s flora and fauna; the Long-headed Poppy, the Argolian Cotton Thistle, the Silvery Mallow-Leaved Bind Weed, the Maltese Yellow Kidney Vetch: wild plants with the weed’s underrated propensity to make things vibrant. The plants spring out of the ground to ridicule the town and in a small-walled field, brimming with yellow flower, kids bunk off school to play with a tethered goat. 















            I could eat choc-chip muffins with a coffee on my balcony wearing nothing but boxers, as the land gradually warmed up. The fruit and veg’ man would drive his truck up Triq Il-Forrest and sound the tuneful siren to notify the neighbourhood that he would be here for the next twenty minutes. Plump Catholic ladies in long dresses would come out of the nowhere to buy a watermelon, some tomatoes, some red peppers - but mainly to exchange the daily gossip. None of it my concern.    
        
I could slide into shorts, a vest and sandals and head down to the sea with a book - very relaxed, dragging my heels, smiling - moving slowly but unhindered. The author William Burroughs would conjure up dystopian worlds where groups of young reptilian boys sat naked in trees masturbating before spreading their scaly lizard wings and flying away. Peeking over the lines of lucid imagination, over the top of the book, I would spy clusters of youthful foreign girls, out tanning between English classes. I would roll onto my back to tan my stomach, proud of just how bone-idle I had become.

            Kurt German, another bar man from the bowling alley, also lived out his time at a casual pace. He worked at Superbowl more often than me, probably got an occasional phone call, but he was very relaxed about the Whole Thing. Nothing to prove, he enjoyed laughing at things you mightn’t notice. He even found his own life laughable – though that could make you feel awkward at times. Kurt was 26. He had a shaved head but still looked hairy because of his five-o-clock shadow, thick eyebrows and un-plucked
glabella. He lived with his mum and dad. I realised it was not at all unusual to stay living with your parents well into your 20’s or even your 30’s in Malta. It was an odd concept for me but with a house like Kurt’s who could blame him? His parents were a host family to language students, but as a rule they only ever hosted girls. Down the hall from Kurt’s bedroom was a 4-bunk-dorm with a year round rotation of bright young things from all across Europe: aged between 16 – 25, here to study one of Malta’s most valuable exports – the English language. Best of all they were paying his family for the privilege.


            I noticed in Kurt, amid the obvious strong appreciation for the place he lived an ennui stemming from a lack of harsh variety, similar to my own. I could tell he felt it himself this sense that life was too unvaried. Maybe it was due to the messages that advertisements were carrying at the time: Nowness ‘Live Life Today!’ a nagging immediacy to do something - the specifics left unmentioned. Just a friendly subliminal reminder that you will die soon and that products don’t buy themselves. 

So,
Hey,
Live it up.
Seize the day.
Now.

The Baystreet Mall even had it’s own ad: ‘Live life the Bay way.’ This advert repeated daily on Bay FM which was the daily soundtrack at Superbowl[1]. I just couldn’t tell if I was living the Bay way or not. 

As far as aspirations went, mine weren’t particularly capitalist. My money was held in a bank account in England.  In Malta I could only draw it out but not check the balance. Internet banking was in its infancy and I hadn’t set it up properly pre-departure, or maybe I had forgotten my password, or maybe I just didn’t want to know how much I owned. Taking into consideration the exchange from Pound Sterling to Maltese Lira, my rough calculations were that with my low rent, pitiful income and alcoholic outgoings my money was diminishing very, very gradually. Imagine a line-graph; the once jagged red stroke seems flat but the trained eye notices a slight decline and in a self-destructive mood the banker’s eyes sparkle.
After an uneventful morning’s work Kurt asks me if I smoke.
“But do you smoke, smoke?” is his question to my answer.
“What do you mean?”
“Hash.”
 “Oh. Yes. Occasionally.”
“I thought so, you look like you are stoned all the time man.”
I wasn’t, I just have a zombie demeanour and my eyes are naturally squinty.
We duck past the Vodaphone ‘Life Is Now’ banner that surrounds St Julian’s Water Polo Pitch onto the concrete ledge that hangs over Balluta Bay where we spark up an aromatic joint.
“My parents will be preparing a meal.” Kurt says thoughtfully.
I am so stoned that the mention of food makes my stomach feel like it is in a long-distance relationship, missing its lover: Miss Food.

We venture to his house in San Gwann and sit outside at a long table lined with welcoming faces. There, that evening, I met Vera. Translated into Maltese her name means ‘True’. Vera wore white silk pyjama bottoms - a Persian Princess or as much akin to one as it’s possible for a girl from Switzerland to appear. Sunbathing isn’t a hobby, it is an art form. I told Vera I did absolutely nothing most days and gave her my phone number in case she ever wanted somebody to spend some time with. 
           
 I often contemplated how I alone had wound up with so much free time. Leisure time was talked about like some valuable commodity but I seemed like the only person in the world that had any.  I imagine myself the cliché cockney wheeler-dealer. An archaic character peddling knock-off Rolexes on a street corner. Opening a long coat on the sly, flashing the gold watches to passers by; each bogus timepiece pegged irresponsibly to the inside lining...

Free Time! Get – Your – Free – Time - Here!” 

…But everyone walks by. Nobody stops doing what they are doing. Except Vera, who went to the beach with me. On the way she made me listen to a song called ‘Bandit Queen’ one earpiece each; it did not describe her. At Gardira Bay she told me she had a boyfriend and that my hands should not touch her. I caressed her legs with the loose white sand, sprinkling it over her hourglass figure.  The sea was still slightly cold.


Next day. Back at the bowling alley. Alex and I were getting on famously. Noticing there weren’t many tips in our tip jar we had started working with an arm tucked behind our backs, inside our polo shirts. One-armed men deserve that little bit extra. Neville had begun referring to Alex as “Your friend” when speaking with me. 
“Aw king. In one hour I am going home. To sleep. Very tired ta. Tomorrow: Party. Tonight it is your friend working he.”

I was beginning to understand what Neville had meant when he called Superbowl ‘The House of Work’ – people dropped in for a brief chat, some stayed for hours, others worked there; they all gelled together creating a loose community. Neville respected the place because the staff formed an extended family. A popular sociologist called Robert Putnam wrote a book called ‘Bowling Alone’ where he elaborates on the notion that bowling leagues (or any sort of organised association) are foundations for healthy human connections, strong social capital and civic empowerment… Well, the bowling league may have been diminishing in the USA but it was alive and kicking and drinking Farsons Blue Label in Malta.
With regular weekly sessions Malta Tenpin Bowling Association teams were an important part of the Superbowl family unit. It was a community I felt privileged to be a part of, even if I was equivalent to an estranged half-cousin. Slowly I got to know a few more of the staff at the ‘House of Work’ – the pillars of the community. 

There was Ray; the oldest barman. He had a wife and kids. He was a fiery, bald-man with tattooed arms and a thunderous way of going about things: a roaring embodiment of head banging guitar solos torn from the 1980’s. We didn’t speak all that much, he would linger at the far end of the bar and talk in Maltese with one of the managers or Mohammed the filthy minded Egyptian chef. When a dirge of customers would force us both to be behind the bar at the same time he would craftily pinch my cock on passing, or slap my balls with a dishcloth. Not in a gay way, which I suppose just made it all the more unusual and un-called for. Was this Über masculine behaviour?
I asked Alex and got the reply “That’s just Ray, he’s a nice guy. I don’t know why he does stuff like that. Just quite physical I guess.” 
It was true he was very tactile; he couldn’t keep his hands off anyone. Grabbing the female staff, picking them up and flipping them around like Catherine-wheels. I wished I could be more like Ray in this sense; more touchy-feely but it wasn’t in my nature. Although not at all shy when talking to people I just wasn’t comfortably inclined to instigate human touch (unlike most of the Maltese people I observed). Thus I decided to make a conscious effort to try. I would stop short of pinching men’s cocks but a friendly arm around a friend’s neck here and there is surely good for The Soul.
            From what I was getting to know of Malta I supposed Ray was what was referred to as Hamalu - a term describing a societal ‘tribe’ – a label similar to ‘Chavs’: Britain’s working class scallywags. Not so much a social class per-se, more a mentality of a sub-group within the lower class – the ones who had their own set-ways of doing things, their own unmistakably crude sub-cultural identity. Hamalu people were blamed for those crass bumper stickers seen on cars. Ray probably wished me triple what I wished him. The young ones wore brightly coloured jeans – yellow, purple and green - that hung not around the waist but just above the knee, their Fake Armani boxer shorts on show. I’m no expert but other recognisable traits of the Hamalu apparently included: predominantly speaking Maltese in all areas of life, supped-up cars, and a penchant for cocaine. They seem to have evolved from the bus drivers, who in turn bear a remarkable resemblance to the hunters.
 
            Chris, Superbowl’s mechanic, was a hunter. He promised to take me out to shoot some migrating birds in September. I was planning on writing an unbiased article about this Maltese tradition. I would see with eyes unclouded by hate and write pure objective journalism. I never got round to it and don’t think any other journalists have either. In the meantime Chris showed me that mysterious domain behind the bowling pins – where the machines collect the scattered skittles, whiz ‘em up, above the lanes, using huge rubber conveyer belts, then set them again real quick for the next bowler.
            There were two mechanics when I first started but one was acting strange from the off. He was spending longer and longer in the toilets, rarely available to fix faults. One day he couldn’t be found anywhere around the alley. Somebody said they had seen him go behind the lanes about half an hour ago, though all the lanes were operating fine. A group of the staff cautiously opened the door to see if he was back there and sure enough he was: head tilted back looking up at the ceiling, eyes closed, standing with his arms held out as if being crucified, stark naked from head to toe.

Mohammed the Egyptian chef had many wives and the bar staff learnt all about them whether we wanted to or not. I had never heard such filthy talk; it made William Burroughs seem tame.










David the other Egyptian chef didn’t have a rude bone in his body - or was just better at concealing it. David darted around like a housefly, and I thought it funny that a guy who wore fluffy slippers to work could move so quickly.

            Clayton and Ryan came from a land known to be a Hamalu stronghold ‘The Dirty South’. If they themselves were Hamalu or not I found it hard to tell. Clayton had lots of piercings around his face. He taught me how to do cocktail ‘flares’ with an empty Malibu bottle. I practiced until I could easily flick a bottle up, so that it twisted mid-air, then catch it upright on the flat-top of my hand. His teachings did not end there as I learnt some Maltese phrases from him. The most popular around the bowling alley was his poetical phrasing of the common question ‘How old are you?’ – “
Kemm ilek ma tindendel mal faldi t’ommok?” - Literally “How long since you hung from your mothers pussy flaps?”

            Clayton’s partner-in-crime Ryan always looked slightly scruffy, his stubble always at three day’s length. He looked like he would smile through a shoot-out. He was in his last year of university. When he went snorkelling he took a spear gun. His bodily expressions were like a court-jester’s: big and loud. When he came behind the bar to mix himself a cocktail - his own concoction - Neville would moan and tut but wouldn’t dream of stopping him. Ryan and Clayton worked on Control: Booking lanes and inputting customer’s nicknames onto the system, taking the payments, handing out the right sized shoes, untying laces, and finally spraying returned pairs with blasts of that air freshener which gives bowling shoes their magical quality.
I pass the control desk and Ryan nods at one of the Mothers chaperoning a kids’ party.
“Look at that woman there. Do you think she is hot?” Ryan asks slyly.
She didn’t look repulsive. Just a respectable middle aged woman, could have easily been a maths teacher.
“Not really. She looks OK.”
This made Ryan grin like a Cheshire cat. He motioned me to lend him an ear and whispered “I agree, but imagine how much better she would look with your cock in her mouth.”

            Duncan was a Duty Manager who got on well with everybody and tolerated Ryan and Clayton's crude shenanigans, though he himself rose well above them. He was a prime example of a 21st century-metro-sexual-male - streamlined for a business world. He wore pink shirts, yes, but this did not show femininity; it showed he was comfortable with his sexuality. Yes his fiancé packaged his lunch in Tupperware. They had the set. Yes he had the mortgage down. Yes he held cheese and wine nights. Yes he had a second job managing a currency exchange bureau… One morning when the bowling alley was a ghost town he took me to the Baystreet Mall to look at silk ties and baby clothes and to sample aftershaves. Isabelle his fiancé also worked with us.

            Timms was twenty-one years old, wore glasses and had unpredictable hair that was a grey shade of brown. I was convinced he was Where’s Wally’s long lost brother who, instead of visiting crowded places all over the world wearing a stripy red & white top, worked on Customer Service at Eden Superbowl wearing the blue staff polo shirt. When Timms was drinking he would make itemised lists of exactly what he had consumed then regale them to me the next day or the next week in his trademark drawl that could put an insomniac to sleep.

“First I started with Carlsberg, I had four cans. Then I decided to drink whiskey, I had a bottle of that in the fridge so I had three glasses with lemonade. In fact it had been four and a half cans of Carlsberg because I had saved half a can from the previous day. After the whiskey I went to Paceville. I had one pint of Cisk at Coconut Grove…”

If I asked, he could also tell me how far he had walked because he counted his steps. I guess he also knew exactly how many strikes he had gotten over the last month, as he was a keen bowler. He was in a team and once a week he would be at the bowling alley in civilian attire, bowling competitively in the national league. He taught me how to spin bowl – where the ball runs three quarters of the way down the lane diagonally, teeters on the edge of the gutter then spins last minute back to the centre pin, and, if executed correctly gets a strike. He was a good teacher – methodical – taught me step by step.
           
            Beside myself, the other Bar Helpers where Kurt Malieha and Kurt Coleiro. Kurt Malieha was much smaller than most people but would walk with his tubby chest out and his head tilted back in an attempt to compensate, this coupled with his glasses made him look like a mole peeking out of the ground. He was boisterous and inventive with his lying, constructing complex webs that even he believed. He had not yet passed his driving test but always talked about his car and how he was doing it up or working on it at the weekend. He wore a Ferrari baseball cap. Kurt Coleiro was much more socially acceptable; cooler than the rest of us. He combed his long fringe to the side obscuring half his face, wore black jeans, a V-neck T-shirt and a studded belt. He was often seen using mobile phone, he had an attractive girlfriend and according to some sources, sold hash.
             
The Customer Service department had two main functions: setting up children’s birthday parties and fetching balls that had been rolled with such a lack of force as to stop half way down the lane. The team consisted of Ben, Isabelle (Duncan’s fiancé), a shy girl called Titzianna who bowled competitively with her twin sister, and Katinka who was a foreigner but had lived here since young – she drove a scooter and, to label her with a single word, was ‘alternative.’ Then there was Dawn. She looked like a bunny-rabbit, her eyes sparkled like black diamonds, she was stumpy, she was cute. I liked being allocated the same shifts as her – I was developing a little crush. She was extremely polite and good-natured, unless provoked. Neville often drove her crazy, maybe because he insisted on calling her his wife, or “This One” and never by her actual name. 

 













Neville and I were fighting in the Control booth. I swung him around and his flailing feet struck Dawn. She was angry with both of us. Later Neville revealed to me that it wasn’t my fault in the slightest; he had kicked her on purpose. His face showed delight at his own cunning and he sniggered
“Pah - Love hurts.”

 There were several other faces from the bowling community that became familiar to me, appearing sporadically whenever I was working at the alley. Most notable was Sabrina. She constantly teased me, cooing my name like a dove in heat “Coooolleeee.” She wore shiny silver hot pants and pigtails. Most days of the week she could be found flitting around the alley like a black haired butterfly. Her family bowled and she herself was in a league bowling team, but surely this would be her last year: soon the hot pants would become her. When I asked her in Maltese how old she was…

Kemm ilek ma tindendel mal faldi t’ommok?

…her eyes popped open, stunned and delighted like she had just heard a snake. She told me she was thirteen and ran off yelling to everyone “Listen to what Coolee just asked me.”
            After that I was no longer encouraged to learn Maltese. Still I knew the basics. By this point I could say:

  •  “Nista nehodhom it tattzi?” – Can I take your glass, 
  •  “Ghurini x’ghandek tant id-dublett” - Show me what’s underneath your skirt, 
and,
  •  “Gerighuli ha nistrik” – Jerk me off so I can relax.



GO TO CHAPTER 5
           


[1] Eden Leisure Ltd incorporates the Superbowl, Cinema, Bay FM and Baystreet Mall.

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