A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Citadel

The Gozo Launch of A Land in the Storytelling Sea

21 May 2014

The day ended like a Dickens novel does—without loose ends, the lives of every character linked. It began like a Dickens novel does, too—in a kind of Dickensian chaos.

D. picked us up at 3 p.m. at Sliema Leyland, our bus stop, and V. at her Luqa shop to take us to Ċirkewwa and the Gozo Channel Ferry for the channel crossing from Malta to Gozo. By the time we reached the fishtail end of the island, D. was driving fast, up and down the region’s steep ridges. He slowed down when we assured him that we didn’t need to make the boat at 3.45 p.m. The boat that left at 4.30 p.m. would get us to Gozo with more than enough time for us to stop for coffee and to find St. Ursula Hall (my book launch was at 7.30 p.m.), whose only address was the Citadel (also known as Ċitadella and Kastell), the walled medieval city at the centre of the island.

We took our place at the dock in the four-lane line from which we’d drive directly onto the ferry, and D. turned off the ignition. No need to idle for 20 minutes. We were in the second lane. A man in an open jeep in the first lane beside us was asleep. We rolled down our windows and relaxed into this time between times. Finally, the signal was given for us to move. D. turned the key. There was a noise like a dry cough. He turned it again. Dry cough. I don’t believe this! he said. Don’t worry, we said. There’s plenty of time. And again. Cough. A great honking began behind us. D. motioned the drivers behind us to pass on the right, in the free first lane. He turned the key again. Dry cough. A man to our left, in the third lane, rolled down his window and asked, You guys all right? American accent. No, we said. The car won’t start. D. turned the key. Dry cough. Sounds like a dead battery, the man said. He rolled onto the boat. It did sound like a dead battery. The engine wouldn’t turn over. But hardly likely. We’d been driving for an hour. In the meantime, D. had transferred the entire contents of the glove compartment onto V.’s lap so that she could call for roadside assistance. And tell your guy to bring an extra battery! she said. In the meantime, all of the cars had boarded. Gozo Channel staff pushed D.’s car out of the way into lane four. At one point, there were five men looking under the hood. The battery looked good, Douglas said. No corrosion. Nothing to do but wait. But the boat still hadn’t left. Idea. We could board, and D. and V. could join us later (or not), and we could take a cab from Mġarr to Victoria / Rabat and the Citadel. Can we board? we asked. Hurry! they shouted. And we abandoned a distressed D. and V. and their disabled car and ran to board the boat from the carport as the ramp went up. Stowaways. We hadn’t paid.

As we caught our breath on the MV Malita, the man who had been in the car beside us found us again. Where are you going?

The Citadel.

We’ll get you there. It’s on our way. Just stay here, and my wife and I will bring you down to the car when we dock. We’re going outside to get some air. And sure enough, they did.

We piled into their car when it came time to disembark and introduced ourselves—Douglas, Sheryl, F., and K. F.’s a Maltese-American. His father still lives in Gozo. K.’s a Scot. They visit every several months or so—the flight with Ryanair costs only €50. For so little money, they were able to bring their son with them last minute. We told them about the reading. Invited them to it. They dropped us off in Pjazza Indipendenza, steps from the Citadel. They recommended that we have coffee at Café Jubilee. We thanked them profusely. And once again, we stopped to catch our breath.

We had espressos at the café, sat for half an hour, tried to reach D. and V. by phone. No luck. K. and her son walked in. We greeted each other like old friends.

Walked up the steps to the Citadel at about 6 p.m. Took the first turn right to museums and shops. Everything closed. The corridor ended in a great wooden door. Closed. No signage for St. Ursula Hall anywhere (appropriate somehow—St. Ursula is a saint who may be apocryphal). The cathedral was open. We entered by a side door on the left. Sat down, intending to regroup. A bell rang, everyone stood, and a loud voice led a known hymn as the priest entered. Mass. We went back outside. The need to find St. Ursula Hall was becoming a little more critical as the hour of the launch approached.

A charming restaurant, Ta’ Rikardu, to the left of the cathedral, was open. Three people were drinking wine. Only it wasn’t open. They were the owners, winding down after the day’s work. But they gave us directions to St. Ursula Hall (the great closed door at the end of the first corridor) and invited us to sit for half an hour while Douglas sipped a glass of wine.

And then the universe began to unfold as it should. A man with a key came to open the great wooden door. And people began to wander down the corridor, wondering where to find the hall. And we were able to tell them. A wonderful space—a great, vaulted stone room. And my publisher arrived with books and sandwiches and water and wine. And about 25 of us mingled before the launch. And I read. And D. and V. walked in.

A man named G. got up to thank me when the reading was over. Gave me a bag of local confections from Portelli Confectionery, Victoria. Bought a book. Asked me to sign it for F. and K. G. was F.’s brother.

A group called Gozo Live had hosted the launch—writers and filmmakers and interested others. Could a poem of mine be read at an event on 12 September? Could several of my poems be read in a film about Gozo from sunrise to sunset? Yes and yes. I’d be honoured.

We left with D. and V. to catch the 9 p.m. ferry. A man from the launch was backing out of the cathedral grounds. He handed me a copy of his 2012 novel. I’ve signed it, he said.

When we opened the door to the car deck get into the car to disembark from the ferry, we were met with a wall of sick-making smell. Two (or three?) great trucks taking live chickens to slaughter. We followed the trucks and the smell and the trail of feathers for awhile, until an impatient D. passed them.

A late dinner with D. and V. at Zeffirino in Mellieħa. Very fine food. D. and V. told us their story. They’d had their battery replaced. But it took the mechanic an hour and a half to get to the dock. And then they couldn’t find their way to St. Ursula Hall. No signage. The reading was good, they said. But they couldn’t understand all of it. My accent.

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