My maternal grandfather held a high ranking position in a number of British overseas naval dockyards, and my mother grew up in countries such as Gibraltar, Bermuda, and the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta where she lived as a teenager from 1930 until 1932.
In 1956, my mother returned to Malta with her own family. My father was an airline pilot and he was based there for a year. This was all before I was born, but I grew up hearing stories about sunshine, rocky beaches, limpid waters and Maltese housekeepers. Even Dingli, the family cat, had been named after a district in Malta.
Forty years after my family left Malta, and over sixty years after my mother had lived there, I decided that I wanted to visit the little island that had been their home. Both my parents had died and I felt a burning need to learn a bit more about the influences that had shaped their lives. It was like going on a treasure hunt, but before I could go I needed to find some clues. Without my parents to turn to, I had to get my information from my mother’s brother and sister, and from my own brothers. I learnt that the house where my mother’s family had lived in the early 1930s was called ‘Alhambra’. Would it still be standing I wondered? An old school friend of my mother’s, Cella, still resident in Malta, had visited my aunt on a recent trip to England. I wrote to her and we arranged that my friend and I would join her for afternoon tea when we arrived in the country.
From the minute our plane touched down in Malta, I felt surrounded by familiarity – and my parents. Nearly every doorway in the capital, Valetta, boasted a shiny brass doorknocker; some were fashioned in the familiar shape of a dolphin, just like the doorknocker that my father had brought back from Malta in the 1950s. It had graced the front door of every house that we had lived in since and I remember my dear old dad lovingly polishing it on Sunday mornings. I recognised the handmade Maltese lace; it was the same as the lace cloths that had adorned the tables in the houses where I grew up.
The capital, Valetta is a beautifully preserved 16th-century walled city, and the Grand Harbour is breath-taking. The British influence is everywhere, and my mum’s old school pals, Cella and her friend Mary, turned out to be eccentric, comical caricatures of elderly colonial Brits who had never left. They were both seventy-nine years old and had attended a convent school with my mother and her sister. We met at Cella’s house in Valetta and drank Darjeeling tea out of bone china cups as we listened to the two old ladies telling stories about life in Malta in the 1930s. Cella told us that my grandfather’s rented house ‘Alhambra’ had been empty for some time and was looking somewhat neglected these days – apparently a property developer had bought it, but couldn’t get the necessary planning permission to enlarge it. She directed us to the house; it was only a few minutes’ walk away from her own home. The street was very ordinary, and the houses on the street were fairly simple and a little bit run down. Nothing had prepared us for Alhambra; certainly not Cella or, indeed, my uncle back in England; but the name should have given us some clue of what to expect. There was no garden at the front, no long driveway; the property had been built directly onto the street with just a gate, a low wall and a wrought iron fence between the narrow pavement and the front door. When we reached the house, we gasped in astonishment; loudly and unashamedly exclaiming words that would have horrified Cella and Mary. It was a little street-side palace, faded and decaying, but not beyond redemption.
Once it would have been grand and exquisite; now it was rundown, romantic, exotic and enchanting. The Moorish architecture, complete with turrets, archways, columns and perfect symmetry was, in a small way, reminiscent of the famous Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. I tried to imagine my mother and her sister running down the hill and entering the house through that same front door. We peered through the dusty windows, it was magical. It was funny to think that my mother probably just took it for granted along with her privileged childhood and household servants.
Later we visited the house where my parents and my brothers had lived in 1956, it was far more ordinary. We sought out Dingli Street and the imposing Dingli Cliffs on the south-western coast of Malta, and I was reminded of our family cat of the same name who lived to the great old age of seventeen. On the next-door island of Gozo, we got drunk in the heat of a Mediterranean afternoon when we sampled some local wine. It was very sweet and similar to sherry – it hadn’t gone unnoticed that Malta is shaped like a bottle of port. We visited magnificent Catholic churches and tried to tone down our language when we – once again – gasped in amazement at the opulence and splendour of the frescoed interiors.
I returned home with a brass dolphin doorknocker and I rather pretentiously named my house ‘Alhambra’. It was a private acknowledgement of the time that my family had spent in Malta. My treasure hunt had been a success.