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Scarambooh lingers in my childhood memories as a short, stocky old man who was quick to laugh but just as quick to leap into a fit of rage. When I think of him, fondness and guilt intertwine in my heart, for up to this day, I can’t fully banish the belief that I might have been responsible for his untimely death.
Scarambooh had fully qualified as a family friend after my grandparents grew too old to tend the bar that they had opened in the early fifties. At the time, the war had just ended and many people in Malta lived in poverty. My grandfather worked at the dry docks, but his pay was not enough to maintain his three daughters and son decently. So, he opened a bar. Grandma and her daughters would tend it during the day, while Grandpa would take over in the evenings after work. The bar became a favourite haunt for British, American and Maltese servicemen. Grandpa, strict as a tyrant, was a stickler for respectability, and kept gambling and other vices firmly at bay.
Aunt Grace, the oldest of my mother’s sisters, remained a spinster all her life, and took over the bar during the seventies, after my grandparents retired. The British servicemen, who had quit Malta after independence, were replaced by a bunch of local regulars. As the years went by, Aunt Grace could not cope with both the bar and her ailing parents so, reluctantly, she was forced to sell. The neighbours took the news with great concern. Grandma and Aunt Grace had been regarded not only as bartenders, but also as the neighbourhood witch doctors.
Scarambooh was one of the worst afflicted by the closure, for he had been a staunch regular for years. Luckily for him though, Aunt Grace willingly opened the doors of her home to the old regulars. Her home replaced the bar as the rallying point for the lost souls of the neighbourhood.
I remember that every Sunday we used to dine at Aunt Grace’s. After the nine o’clock church service, we would head straight to her house. Mum would help with the cooking, while Dad would entertain visitors. I always looked forward to those Sunday mornings, and more often than not, Scarambooh would be the star entertainer.
He would herald his own arrival by whistling Rule Britannia. His squat figure would then fill the doorway and he would give a short rap on the door. ‘Good morning to everyone!’ he would announce. Then, he would stoop in front of me, ruffle my hair and say, ‘I’ve got a little something for you, young man.’ He’d fumble through his pocket, which, to my child’s eyes, was like a magician’s hat, and a little present would appear in his jittery fingers. It would be a coloured pencil, a ruler or a fancy rubber and sometimes, to my great delight, a bar of chocolate. The present would make me overlook the stale stench of wine that whiffed through the gaps between his far-between wobbly teeth.
‘Thanks a lot Mr Ancilleri,’ I’d say and he’d ruffle my hair once more and then slump on the worn imitation-leather armchair with a thud.
My parents warned me never to call him by his nickname, because, they said, it was not polite. I could not understand why all people in the street called him Scarambooh, while my parents always addressed him by his first name, Giovanni.
Scarambooh was extremely fond of his past service as a sailor in the Royal Navy and would recite to us anecdotes about his service life with great enthusiasm. During his story-telling sessions, he used to get completely carried away. Scarambooh always announced the end of a story by standing to attention, taut like a guitar string, saluting us and shouting, ‘Able seaman Ancilleri, Sir!’
I was extremely fond of Scarambooh’s stories, which were exciting and funny. As I grew older, though, I started nursing suspicions that Scarambooh was a prank magnet. However, he was firmly convinced that he was the undisputed hero of all his misadventures, just like Don Quixote.
While serving in the Royal Navy, Scarambooh had been posted to a number of countries. One fine Sunday, he told us of his close encounter with a ghost while he was stationed in post-war Germany. He pulled himself out of Aunt’s sagging armchair, assumed a serious expression and paced to and fro, holding his chin.
‘It was winter,’ he said, ‘and I was detailed to sentry duty aboard. I was wearing the heavy service coat, but the bitter cold bit through it like knives. My other companion was snoring loudly on a bench. I was left on my own with a huge responsibility – that of guarding the ship and ensuring the safety of all those remaining aboard!’
After a short coughing fit, he pulled out a grubby handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his mouth. ‘As I was pacing from bow to stern, I heard a strange noise coming from behind a lifeboat!’
His bulgy eyes were fixed in a stare.
‘I approached the boat cautiously,’ he said, walking on tiptoes in a stoop like the Pink Panther.
‘I heard an ominous rustle and knew I was facing something terrible. And then I saw it!’ he shouted, making us all start. ‘It was a hazy, white figure floating on the deck towards me. I made the sign of the cross. I thought I was doomed, but the good Lord made me aware of an iron pipe lying on the deck. I grabbed it and dealt the otherworldly spirit two hard blows before I fled.
‘The spirit screamed and swore at me! But I did not look back. When I went back to fetch my sleepy companion, there was a crowd on deck. They had been woken up by the scream. When I told them about the ghost, they looked at each other incredulously. I had just rid the ship from a malignant spirit!’ Scarambooh declared.
When I saw Mum and Auntie snatching quick smiles at each other, I was aching to tell Scarambooh that the ghost must have been one of his mates with a white bed-sheet pulled over his head. But I had second thoughts when I saw the ‘don’t-you-even-think-of-it’ look on Dad’s face.
Scarambooh had a bad asthma. His breath would wheeze like broken bellows. He always carried a greenish-grey inhaler that he would puff into his mouth if his breathing grew too difficult. That inhaler also doubled as a gun prop during his Sunday performances. And he certainly put it to good use when he told us the story of how he had saved an Admiral’s life when he had been stationed in Cairo.
‘I had just finished sentry duty at the depot,’ he said. ‘I was walking back to the ship when I saw a jeep coming to a halt a couple of houses further on. Inside, there were two figures dressed in white Navy uniforms, who, judging by their stripes and medals, were high-ranking officers. They were immediately surrounded by a group of fierce-looking Egyptians who were up to no good.
‘I feared the officers were about to be mugged and have their money stolen. I ran towards the jeep, took out my pistol and shouted like a fury: Off you go! Off you go!’
Scarambooh ran hysterically from one end of the room to the other, brandishing his inhaler-pistol like John-Wayne-gone-wild in a cowboy movie.
‘Seeing me rushing towards them,’ he said out of breath, ‘the muggers lost their nerve and dispersed in panic.’
Scarambooh beamed with pride when we applauded him. He took a few moments to regain his breath and spat an enormous globule of green phlegm in his handkerchief, which made me wince and earned me a glare from Mum.
‘It turned out that one of the gentlemen was the Lord Admiral himself,’ he said. ‘Able seaman Ancilleri, Sir! I shouted in salute. The admiral said that he and his aide had lost the way and had been asking for directions to the hotel. I explained to him that he had been in mortal danger, had I not dispersed those muggers. He looked incredulous. When he thanked me, I replied, You don’t need to thank me, Sir! Only my duty, Sir!’
As always, I had lots of questions lurking on the tip of my tongue. Had it not crossed his mind that those people were really innocent bystanders trying to give directions? But once again, Dad seemed to read my mind and gave me his don’t-dare-ask-it look. Once again, I shelved the questions.
Scarambooh reached the zenith of his play-acting in what I call the ‘broken flies crisis.’ One fine day, he came to Auntie’s wearing horrible pastel-blue trousers instead of the usual grey pants.
‘You look very smart in those trousers, Giovanni,’ said Aunt Grace politely.
I could see that Mum and Dad could barely suppress their laughter.
‘Thanks, Ma’am,’ Scarambooh replied with a radiant smile. ‘That nagging wife of mine has convinced me to go to the tailor’s. I was sorry to part with my old pair but I could not bear her complaints anymore. Mind you, they don’t do them as they used to. This one’s got no buttons but a damned zipper,’ he said, as he pulled the zipper up and down a couple of times to show us what he meant.
The following Sunday, Scarambooh came to Auntie’s house in a very distressed state, so much so that he almost tripped over the carpet.
‘Is everything all right, Giovanni?’ asked Aunt Grace.
‘Oh God!’ he said, as if he had just seen the end of the world around the corner. ‘The last two days have been agony!’
We all looked at each other and waited to hear the terrible news.
‘Last Friday, I was spending a penny at the latrine near the kiosk,’ he said. ‘When I tried to pull up my flies, the zipper snapped. I ran to the tailor’s but he did not answer the door. The neighbour said he was on holiday. Since then, I had to wander about with open flies.’
‘Why didn’t you tell your wife to mend them?’ asked Mum innocently.
The question sent Scarambooh into a fit of rage. ‘Don’t mention that bitch, please. She doesn’t know anything about sewing. Why the hell did I listen to her in the first place?’
‘Calm down, Giovanni,’ Dad said. ‘You can have it fixed next week.’
Scarambooh’s rage suddenly and unexpectedly melted into tears. He grabbed the open flies with both hands and tugged hard as if he wanted to tear them out of the trousers. ‘What a shame!’ he cried. ‘How can a respectable man like me go out in these?’
I bit my lower lip hard, suppressing laughter.
Scarambooh was in a state of panic. ‘I had a nightmare last night,’ he said. ‘I was at the church for the Sunday service, when my member popped out of the broken flies in front of the whole congregation!’
This was too much even for my usually straight-faced parents. They could not hold out for long. And it was then that I said the words I later regretted.
‘Dad?’ I asked innocently. ‘What is Mr. Ancilleri’s member?’
My question was like a flame on a bomb fuse. Mum burst out first, followed by Aunt and Dad. They laughed their hearts out. Tears flooded their cheeks and they clutched their aching sides.
Scarambooh, his face the colour of a ripe plum, fled out of the door. ‘What a shame! What a shame! Damn these bloody trousers!’
That was the last time we saw Scarambooh. Three days later, a neighbour told us that he had passed away following a very severe asthma attack during the night. I was convinced that I had killed him, and it took a lot of persuading from my parents to convince me that it hadn’t been my fault at all. Scarambooh’s death marked the end of an era in our neighbourhood. He had been one of the last survivors of a past generation.
After his funeral, his wife paid us a visit. She told us that her husband had died happy, for the day before, she had taken his trousers to the tailor’s and had had his flies mended.