It is a warm April night. My plane touches down. It would be better to be anywhere than here.
My father had been asking me to come home for a year and a half. “You’re being funny about it,” he’d say. “You can’t avoid Malta for ever, you know.”
So I gave in. But my uneasiness in the Gatwick departure lounge turned into an almost physical sense of dread as flight 8825 took off.
I did not think my heart could bear it. Then, when somewhere over Italy the plane began to shake, I thought: Jesus, this is all I need.
Why had I listened to him? Jessica, my wife, had the right idea: we have spent enough time in Malta, she said. It’s taken enough.
It’s a short flight, I had told her to reassure myself. We’ll still feel like we’re in London when we get there. We’ll arrive quickly, leave quickly.
I used to go back to Malta often. So often that it got to that point where my connection to the place felt weaker. Often enough that, year after year, Malta came to mean less to me.
But now, stepping on to the tarmac, all my memories rush to meet me. The heaviness in the air, the limestone terminal and its inverted arches and, inside, the glistening tiles and smell of detergent. By the time I walk out of the terminal I feel tired, as though I have come a much greater distance than the 1,300 miles from London.
Matthew, the eldest and wildest brother, is waiting for me in the car park. Unbelievable. After all this time – all those pleas that I should come, and that flight, all that dread – my father isn’t there to meet me. He has sent Matthew instead and a typically abrupt text: “At school reunion. See you at home.”
Still, I am happy to see Matthew and, in a way, relieved. My father’s driving is calm and safe but also nauseating: corners taken with wide swerves; hills with stop-start acceleration.
My father had picked me up the last time I landed in Malta. Matthew in the front seat and Andrew, my middle brother, with me in the back. I remember now how desperate I was to feel as though nothing had happened. I remember exchanging glances with Andrew as we swerved down the familiar road to our house in Bidnija.
In 1990 we had moved from Sliema to Bidnija, a hamlet that sits on a ridge separating two valleys in the less arid north-west of Malta. No more than a half-hour drive to the urban core around Valletta on the north coast, people always asked why we lived so far away.
Buses came late to Bidnija, and taxi drivers often refused to go there. I once got a taxi home by telling the driver I needed to go to Mosta, a large town five minutes away. When at the edge of Mosta I asked the driver to please keep going, just a little bit, down the hill to our house, he said ħxejtni, sieħbi, hawnhekk mhux Mosta (‘you screwed me, friend, this isn’t Mosta’) and demanded an extra half-fare.
Broke, I got out halfway down the hill at a spot not far from the field that now, as we drive past it, I see is full of flowers, candles, and a banner with my mother’s portrait on it.
Matthew and I fall silent as we see the banner. We don’t speak again until we reach our house.
This is the most painful thought for me: my brother, who ran out barefoot to the scene that day, driving past that banner each time he leaves and returns home, determined to look ahead but unable to look away.
The land is rugged, presenting plenty of opportunities for hideouts. The views from our house are wide. To the north, is the sea at St Paul’s Bay, where we like to say our patron saint was shipwrecked on his way from Galilee to his execution in Rome. The old, fortified capital Mdina in the south and, looking west into the valley that opens up under the house, fields and an ancient olive grove.
The Bidni olive, a purple and alkaline cultivar, has grown in this valley for thousands of years and gave its name and purpose to our hamlet. Farmers built their farmhouses around the valley and by 1920 saved enough for a chapel that they dedicated to the Holy Family.
And that, really, is all. It is in this lonely hamlet that my parents decided we would settle, in a dilapidated house surrounded by a garden of citrus trees, bamboo and a mulberry tree that I can still see from my old room. Once that tree was home to migrating turtle doves; they were shot down by Maltese hunters.
My room. At last my room. I take off my jacket and throw it on to my desk, the same desk that had been mine since I was 10. It is covered with my stuff, some new, some old. A box with the Rizlas my parents never found, the books they gave me two Christmases ago.
Here I am again: the teenager, the 30 year-old, the boy, all at once.
A text message from Andrew asks whether I’m home. Matthew brings my bag to my room. Both my brothers had come home months before me: the youngest and, as usual, the last.
Before closing the window shutters against the morning sun that will soon arrive, I look out across the dark to the coast, illuminated still by hotels, cars and houses, against a black sea.
Floating out there on his boat, a man once looked right back at this house and sent the signal that armed then detonated the bomb under my mother’s car seat.
Malta has long been a place of violence, but the period of Labour rule, starting in 1971 and ending in 1987, a year before I was born, saw the country increasingly violent, isolated and divided.
Police raided the homes of people considered to be enemies of the state. The government expropriated their houses and businesses. Some left the country and never returned. But the eighties also saw thousands of people rise up in protest. They were met with brutality from the armed forces and police force, my father being one of many who was floored by a thug and beaten by policemen when the government ordered a crackdown on a protest in Valletta.
Government thugs burnt down the printing press of the Times and The Sunday Times of Malta, locking its workers inside the building. The workers escaped only with the help of a nearby parish priest; the Church was then also an enemy of the state.
People were scared to express their views in private conversation, let alone in print. Newspapers never carried bylines, columns were anonymous, reports always by “staff reporters”.
Daphne, my mother, was politicised in this period. She was first arrested, aged 19, in 1984, at an anti-government protest. She was locked in a cell with faeces-covered walls and without access to the outside world for 24 hours. They tried forcing her to sign a false confession.
It was in 1987 that, by a whisker, a new party was voted into government on a platform of unity and modernisation. But the post-1987 reconciliation was a sham; no one paid for the crimes they had committed. The man who arrested my mother is now the speaker of our parliament. He sent flowers to her funeral the last time I was home.
For most Maltese people, the culture of fear still prevails. Why stick your neck out? What do you stand to gain? The violence of the 1980s is now washed away with platitudes (it was a different time) or, increasingly, revisionism (Labour’s golden age).
More than 30 years after these events, Malta has still not had a proper accounting of that period. Worse, we think we don’t need one. We bury our bodies with what we have: hyper-growth, powered by mass tourism, gambling and illicit finance.
And still we pay: corrupt politicians remain with us while the prize has grown with our economy; we have become a democratic country but an anti-democratic people; and high-profile murders still go unsolved.
And so in Malta people are asked to live in two worlds at once: daylight bombings and easy money. In a small country, you learn to live with anything.
It was Matthew who last called me back to Malta. He rang from a number I didn’t recognise. I sent the number to my mother, asking whether she knew it. No answer. And so when I finally picked up, he said that there was a bomb in her car and that he didn’t think she made it and will you come home? “Will you come home now?” he said.
For the following three weeks we were under siege. The Bidnija valley we knew so well was lit at night by floodlights and in the day dotted with officers in white forensic suits. Drones buzzed overhead and questions from police officers, journalists, the president, all their questions and calls, flew around us. I left a few hours after the funeral and told myself I’d never return.
Waking up early in my old room, I lie in bed until my father opens the door and then knocks. “You can’t stay in bed for ever, you know.” Why not? “I suppose you can, but your brother wants to go swimming.”
My father is lowering himself into the driver’s seat when Matthew calls out behind him: “I’ll drive – don’t worry – I’ll drive.”
We drive to the coast south of Bidnija, a part rugged enough to keep the crowds away. It wasn’t always like this. I remember being among a handful of people at the beach when we first moved to the area, but now the population has doubled and people drive all over the island looking for some sliver of uncrowded coast.
We walk down clay hills, moving through spring’s clover and thyme, to get to the shore. The work makes us feel good; our peace deserved. We sit on a limestone slab jutting out into the sea, the sun slowly burning overhead.
The heat comes early to Malta, but the sea this April day is still cold and rough. The waves overtake each other, one breaking after the other. Behind them the swell is like a body breathing.
Matthew jumps in. “It’s perfect.”
My father takes a step back from the shore, folds his arms behind his back in his usual way, and looks out at the waves crashing beside him. What is he thinking? His eyes fixed on the waves, what is my father thinking?
The last time I felt like this I was nine years old, sitting on the sandy beach one headland south along the coast, watching my brothers swim and waiting for our parents to take us home. Home to tea and peaches so ripe that they melt in your hands as you peel them. It feels for a moment that nothing has happened in between. That moment is beautiful.
My father walks back to the limestone shore, arms still folded behind his back, the waves still rolling in out of the swelling grey sea, saying to him in a way that his sons can’t that things go on.
Photographs by Getty Images
This article will appear in the next edition of the Tortoise quarterly