'My Grandmother Janna came to live with us after my father died. My mother was only twenty, they were so in love, she went off her rocker really. She would write his name over and over again on the wall in the garden. I was three when he died and Janna came. If it wasn't for her we'd all be bloody rich.'
“She came to look after your mum?”
'No. She came because she had nowhere else to go. What happened was this; My Grandfather, Spiro Dione, was a PO in the Royal Navy. He was always away at sea. He and Janna were very well off. Rich. He used to ship furniture back, so everything in the house was bespoke. In Malta, if you were rich you had a marble house. I mean the outside, it would be all marble. They had one. Its still there. Carmen took me to see it when I last visited. I had no idea.
Janna had a lot of gold. Chains that went to her knees – another Malta way of showing.
Then – now, let me see, let me count.'
I can hear my mother's mind like an abacus down the phone line.
'Okay, Janna and Spiro Dione had seventeen children.'
'I know. Three girls and the rest boys. They never needed for anything. Then, one day Spiro Dione came home to retire. They retired young from the navy. Forty, sometimes up to forty six. When he got back he found there was no money in the bank. Half of the furniture he had been sending was also gone. He asked Janna what was going on, and eventually after she ran out of lies, she told him she had gambled it all away. The house too, would soon be taken. Her chains were gone, her gold. Everything. So he shot her.'
We sit on opposite ends of the phone line laughing with each other. Laughing with that illicit mirth that's particular to families only. Once we calm down mum continues.
'Yes, her leg or somewhere. Obviously she was running around as he took aim. She used to show me the bullet mark, “That's where your grandfather shot me Chettina! There!”
So she ended up living with us and Spiro Dione lived with Auntie Chetta, two doors down. We all lived on the same street, all of us. He would stand on the balcony and whenever Janna passed by underneath he would spit on her. They would have these big arguments – her in the street, him on the balcony. Just telling each other how much they hated the other. They lived for years on that hate. She would scream, “When you die I'll dance on your grave!” And he would reply, “And if you go first I'll dance on yours!”
He died first. She didn't dance on his grave. But she did spit on it.
I asked Carmen why with so many sons, all living, did none of them ever visit her, or care for her? And that's how Carmen came to tell me the story. Because everyone would have been rich when they died. All of us. But the boys, who had never had to work, now had to find trades. One became a greengrocer, another a butcher, this one a baker and so forth. They would all bring food around for her but the wouldn't speak to her again. And she, well she wouldn't speak to them either. Seventeen children and almost none of them speaking to her. How is that possible eh?
I loved her very much. When I was in trouble she would hide me under her skirt. She was a character. She had a stroke once and my mother put her to bed and she got over it herself! No doctor was called. She never had anything to do with doctors or priests. She hated priests and nuns – she spat at them too. And she would have a go at my mother you know. She would have a go because she would go away and leave us and not care for us. And my mother would chuck her out. It happened a few times. She had a room somewhere. A tiny room with only a bed in it. And she would go there until my mother would have her back.
I didn't have toys. The cousins used to tease me, showing off their toys but I didn't care. I had a shoebox and I collected pieces of coloured glass. Red was special. Red glass was the most precious thing I had. I would take the pieces out of the box and in my imagination they would become people and furniture and houses. Strange how you can do that as a child.
One time Janna went gambling and she came back, running up the street, Happy happy happy! She said, “I've won you a doll!” It was huge. My mother put it on top of the wardrobe and said I could play with it on sundays. Sundays were always special. No brooms came out, no floors to mop. A real day of relaxing. I used to look forward to playing with the bloody doll. I preferred my coloured glass but the doll was big and I could tease my cousins with it. One sunday I go to get it and its not there. My mother tells me she's sorry but she had to give it to one of my cousins. So that was the end of the bloody doll. Janna had a go at her. Mum threw her out of course.
In the end Janna only went to hospital once in her life. Bearing in mind she gave birth seventeen times that's quite an achievement. All born at home. When she was eighty or so she fell in the street and banged her head on the curb. She was taken to the hospital and she died there. Her last words were, “There are so many angel's around my bed.” It was her children that she saw, that she mistook for angels.
She lived and died a gambler though. Anything; Cards, horses, dogs, bingo, anything. She set up poker games on the street outside the house. My brother Joe is like her. He gambles. He's always gambled.
Everyone takes after someone don't they.'