Ġorġ Mallia

Author, cartoonist, and instructional technologist

 

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A Roaring, Silent World

 

The old man with the sad eyes sat on the makeshift stone bench, one leg gathered under him, as he rummaged in the sack for food.

He had not eaten since four that morning, when he had dipped hard biscuits in steaming tea before setting out on a day in the field. It was now well into the afternoon and hunger had dragged him back to the rough shack of rubble walls he called home.

He sniffed at the loaf of bread he’d fished out of the sack, and deeming it digestigble he proceeded to scoop out part of the soft centre. Then he spread tomato paste inside the hole that remained, stuffed it with olives and rough slices of goat cheese, and after dipping the scooped out bread in oil, he pressed it back into the loaf, and ate.

He sat in the doorway of his shack, which was at the edge of a cliff, under which was a vast expanse of blue, flecked by white ribbons of foam, as the never-ending muffled thunder of the waves provided the only sound, infusing the backdrop with its rhythm.

The sun burnt the top of his bare head. It hung like an angry cry for vengeance, searing the ground he had been working on, and giving him poor compensation only in the shape of the abstract jewels it left on the surface of the sea, glinting and dancing mischievously just out of reach.

The old man stared out over the void, his brown eyes dulled by the years and his smile long robbed by the loneliness of his existence. It had been weeks since he last saw anyone, and then it was only the old woman at the grocery down in the village when he went to buy what he himself could not grow. And she only ever said how much the bill came to. Never a word of greeting. Nor any other word, come to that.

He was not liked in the village. And he did not like the people there, so things balanced out. No, it was difficult to like the scurrying children who shouted out names at him whenever he needed to go down to get provisions. Nor could he find it in himself to give the time of day to the sullen faced strangers who turned their faces the other way when they saw him. He would get what he needed, and before long he would be back among the familiar shadows and rough edges of his life. Nothing to be happy about, but lots to be comfortable with.

He had dug into almost half the loaf, cutting slices out of its dark crust with the small but very sharp pen-knife he always carried for that purpose, when footsteps startled him out of his habitual, accepted ambience of silent aloneness.

He could just make out the shape of what seemed to be a young man, slim and sprightly, stepping out of the sun-burnt foliage of the small copse behind him.

He sat and watched him approach. Unperturbed, but analysing the face that got closer, and not recognising him as any one of the identity lacking beings that inhabited like intangible ghosts the streets of the village during his visits.

Nor had he seen him before anywhere else. Yet there was something familiar about the face. A haunting feeling of almost recognition brought an extra line to the old man’s brow. The face and the context. Both rang silent bells inside his head, like flitting shadows teasing memory but slipping away just before anything tangible could be recognised.

But how was that possible? The last time a young man was anywhere near where the old man sat was many, many years before. Too many. They had tumbled over each other like an avalanche of misery since that afternoon…

“…life is different now. There’s nothing to say that a son has to move in his father’s footsteps,” the young man had said for the thousandth time, and for the thousandth time the he that was then had rebutted this. Stubbornly. Persistently.

“What will you do with yourself? Hire out your strength to the highest bidder? Lift boxes at the docks or make pretty flowers grow in some rich lady’s garden?” He had said when he wasn’t so old, when fire replaced the lethargy in his veins. “What sort of a life is that?”

“No, what sort of a life is this?” and the retort was fiery and arrogant. “We see no-one, we meet no people, we live for the land and that’s a whimsical master. We toil for pennies and live the life of hermits. If mother were still alive she’d agree with me!”

“Don’t ever mention your mother like that!” he had snapped, beginning the fight that was to end that part of his world. “She was a good woman who knew and accepted her role in life. What you want to do is the opposite of all that she stood for!”

“She stood for whatever you told her to stand for,” and there was anger in the young man’s brown, glinting eyes. “She often cried at night. Did you know that? In spite of having lain next to her in bed all her adult life? No, of course you didn’t. You’d be fast asleep, snoring as she cried. I used to hear her from the other room, and be unable to sleep, feeling her frustration deep inside me, until the morning sun made her sobs subside!”

“You’re lying to get your way!”

“I don’t need to lie to get my way,” the voice was suddenly silent, with a hint of peril in the tone. “I shall be leaving here this evening, and I won’t return!”

“Over my dead body!” shouted the man.

His son raised his arms slowly, menacingly; his sinews, wrought to iron strength by the hard ground of winter, rippled to the rhythm of the anger in his voice. “If that is what you wish,” he said quietly.

The man screamed. He lifted a heavy oak chair high up in the air, and lunged at the young man, who deftly caught one leg and pulled, dropping the chair on the man’s head.

The man’s eyes were misted over with what might have been the last tears he ever cried as he crumpled to the ground and succumbed to darkness. When he came to his senses, his son was gone.

And with time the son was replaced by the hardness of the ground, the smell of the soil, and the harsh rhythmic roaring of the crashing waves.

With a shock he did not know he could still feel, the old man realised that the young man who fast approached him had his son’s eyes! They were muffled by an unfamiliar face, but were unmistakable and startling.

Now that the stranger was close enough, the old man could see that he was tall and gangling, slim, with the obvious air of the city around him. He stopped eating and waited for newcomer to speak.

“Hello,” said the young man, and there was a breathlessness in his voice that did not come from his climb up to the top of the cliff. “I’m so happy finally to have found you! So very happy to meet you!”

The old man said nothing. There was no hint of interest in his dull eyes, no movement at all on his face. He just looked fixedly at the young stranger, waiting for him to say the inevitable.
“I’m your…”

“Grandson,” said the old man in the hoarse voice he had not used for many years, and the words rasped out, like nails scraping metal, toneless but harsh. “You are my son’s son.” And there was an almost imperceptible sigh at the end of that.

“Yes,” said the young man, flustered, unsure of what to say next now that his grand entrance had been deflated like a holed overblown balloon.

The dull eyes said nothing.

“I have been wanting to come to see you … to meet you… for years. Ever since I found out you were still alive, and not dead at all, like my dad had said ever since I can remember!” The words came tumbling out, each one chasing the other. “I found out about you and where you live when the parish priest asked dad about you … and dad did not know I was listening through a half open door. You had a fight with him, didn’t you, when he wanted to come live in the city. He never spoke about you, but had to when I confronted him with the fact that I knew all about you…”

The young man’s voice trailed off. He had been hoping for some sort of reaction to him and his words. Any sort of reaction. But the old man just sat there, quietly eyeing him, but not moving. Not talking.

And the thunder of the waves took over for a brief while, as there was silence between them.
The young man broke it. “This is a great occasion,” he almost cried, “I never knew I had a granddad, and now you’re right here before me. Isn’t it wonderful?” And he made as if to move forward to touch his grandfather’s shoulder.

The old man lurched to his feet, dropping the half loaf and raising the pen-knife in front of him. He stretched his arm in the direction of the young man and pointed the sharp blade at him.

“Get off my land!” he said softly, menacingly.

“But… but… I came all the way here to meet you. Argued with my dad for months because he wouldn’t let me. Wanted to prove to him that you would be happy to see the grandchild you never even knew you had…!” His voice quavered as if he was close to tears. “How … how can you? I’m of your own blood…!”

“My blood is in the ground beneath your feet,” said the old man, his dull eyes duller than ever. “My son lost all traces of my blood when he went away and left that ground. He is not my son. You are not my grandson!”

The young man was openly distressed. He lifted his hands to his face and his mouth opened and closed without sound for all the world like a dying fish. “No,” he said finally, “no … this is not the way it’s supposed to be. This is not the way it is in novels, in the movies … you’re supposed to accept me. You’re supposed to let me help you heal the wound and close the rift between you and your son… you’re … you’re supposed to take me in your arms and cry with joy…”

The old man did not move, his arm outstretched with the blade at the end of it glinting in the raging sun. His face was inscrutable, his eyes as dull as ever, saying nothing, meaning nothing.

The young man’s hands dropped by his sides, limp and helpless. His eyes were red and he had no voice, but his shoulders slumped and his head hung, as if it had lost the support of his neck.


“This is not the way it’s supposed to be,” he whispered one last time as he turned slowly away from the standing old man and moved like a sleeper in a waking dream back towards the copse.

 

When he disappeared, the old man’s arm slowly relaxed, and he turned and sat again on the stone bench in front of his home.

And the blue waves thrust foam up the face of the cliff, and the sun sent ripples of silver dancing to nothingness.

And the roar of the waves engulfed his thoughts and buried them in the silence of his world.

Illustration from Avventura taħt l-Art. Bugelli Publications, 1993.

 

 

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© Ġorġ Mallia 2017