by Emma-Kate Lewis
In the vacant plot of land visible from both our homes, Nik and I set traps to capture the kidnappers.
Inspired by our favourite cartoons, we dug shallow pits in one sweaty day, hiding them in plain sight beneath dead palm fronds. We left slabs of cacti dangling from the branches of the tallest trees we could climb. We stacked sharp stones in the long grass.
The land was difficult enough to navigate without our makeshift additions: a dense, tiered jumble of rubble walls, carob trees and bamboo clusters. We found our way around these obstacles most of the time. When we couldn’t, we went through them instead, thorns catching our t-shirts as we crawled in the bellies of bushes. The chance to lay claim to whatever space we found ourselves in when we emerged was worth the dirt and the bloodied forearms, the stinging ants and the bruised shins.
We acquired weapons as we roamed. Fallen branches long and firm were sliced through the air, used to carve a path through stubborn roots or decapitate weeds in preparation for an encounter with our imagined enemies. We spent much of our time this way during the long summers, immersed in the alternative world we’d created just metres from our bedrooms. Our minds expanded effortlessly to ensure we never tired of our game.
We grew up in Mellieha, on Under the Clin Road. Great jagged slabs of rock towered above us on one side, as the name suggests, and a mixture of houses and fields at various levels of descent sprawled on the other, ending only where the brilliant blue of the Mediterranean Sea met them. When it came to conjuring a storyline to accompany our exploration, much of the work had been done for us: of all childhood’s fabricated monsters, we were most afraid of those who might have taken us elsewhere.
Whenever we ventured away from our street by choice, Malta’s size made it possible to get from one end of the island to the other in little over an hour by car. Its road conditions, unfortunately, rarely reflected this. Potholes and pinched patience in heavy traffic made for particularly tense rides in the height of summer, when only air conditioning relieved the humidity. But even the worst case of car-induced cabin fever could be soothed when driving along the Coast Road. There, the great sparkling sheet of the sea’s soft white edges flapped against wide stone slabs, giving why only to the sticky tarmac that clung to the tread of the car’s wheels inching along it.
If my mother was taking us to see a film, we could follow the curve of the coast for much of the drive, weaving our way through the narrow streets of St lulians and Sliema to reach the yacht-crowded harbours of Ta Xbiex and Msida, before curving up towards the old fortifications of Valletta. The entrance was always crammed with vendors selling food and brand-less clothing opposite the fountain. If we were lucky, my mother would buy Nik and me an imqaret each, the soft pastry and warm, sticky date filling fuelling our march to the cinema flanked by cooing pigeons.
But even these excursions didn’t have the same thrill to them as the ones I had closer to home. The cobbled streets of Valletta felt slippery beneath my shoes, nothing like the familiar crunch of the shrubs in the vacant plot that released their scents as I stepped on them and made my head rush with their ferocity. The idea of the cinema was exciting, but it was also predictable. Exploring with Nik, the plot took a different form each day. Every unexplored bush and unclimbed tree held the promise of something new entirely.
The greatest discovery we made was Kidnapper’s Cave. Or, rather, the boulder that had crashed down from the cliff face thousands of years carlier and landed in such a way as to create it. We stumbled across the cave after a morning of scrambling over stones on a steep hill, another activity driven by our desire to set foot in every crevice of the vacant plot. The boulder threw a shadow over us as we approached it, and only when we began to claw our way up its rough side did we discover the hole leading to its hollow interior.
Inside were the charred remains of a fire and three empty glass bottles covered in dirt, their labels worn down to a few wispy strips of paper on dried glue. We fell silent then, the realisation that others had visited the cave before us mingling uncomfortably with the thoughts of kidnappers that had previously kept their distance in our imaginations. Neither of us wanted to venture inside. So we continued our climb, leaving behind the unpleasant knowledge that the place we considered ours had not always been so.
Standing on top of Kidnapper’s Cave, we found our heads above the trees. There we could see Gozo, the neighbouring island in the distance, the only place that held more allure than our vacant plot. Nik’s mother, Erika, would often take us to Gozo for weeks at a time over the school holidays, renting a flat in the seaside village of Marsalforn, in a building with walls made of the same globigerina limestone as the cliffs that overlooked the bay. She’d pile us into the back of her car with the rest of her luggage and we’d catch the Gozo Channel ferry from Cirkewwa, waving goodbye from the upper deck to the fishermen who lined the port. The boat would pass Comino on its route, and we could make out the famous turquoise waters of the Blue Lagoon in the distance.
Erika’s excitement rivalled Nik’s and mine when we arrived in Gozo. She’d drive us along with every window wound down and the radio turned up as high as it would go, encouraging us to sing along and laughing whenever we messed up the lyrics, so we did it on purpose sometimes. Marsalforn became our playground on those trips, the kidnappers forgotten in a rush of sand, slush puppies and midnight swims. For a while, all we had to fear were the jellyfish whose bullous bodies local kids splashing in the shallow threw at one another when teasing became too serious. That was, until Nik came up with the solution to the one-lira cut-off point that shortened our nights at the local fair. We’d heat the ends of my hairpins with one of Erika’s stray lighters, plunging the glowing tips into the bright pink and yellow plastic of our tokens and pulling the hot metal through hastily with fumbling fingers. In the bumper cars we’d insert the tokens as usual, leaving the hairpins poking out of the slot for us to yank free in the seconds before the rink’s timer stopped and they were swallowed for good.
We got away with it for several nights on end until, high on our own confidence, we caught the eyes of the owners: two Gozitan men with greased hair and thickly inked skin. They stamped out their cigarette as we bolted, then gave chase for as long as their lungs would allow. With blood rushing in our ears and flip-flops hammering the tarmac, we ran until the distance between ourselves and the flashing lights of the fairground rides was enough to swallow their curses. In the silence broken only by our gasps for breath, the flood of relief brought with it whoops and giggles that forced themselves up from our heaving chests and out through our open mouths into the night sky.
I was guilty, but the elation proved addictive. A month later we were back in Malta, flying through the air on trampolines suspended above the rocky beach in Bugibba, a tourist hub of karaoke bars, nightclubs and fast food trucks. It was well after closing time, but the line dancers stomping to Eivis Costello at the open-air restaurant across the road had provided just enough light for us to pick our way towards the sea in the dark.
When the chain link fence that encircled the trampolines proved too tall to climb, we chose to go under instead. We wriggled our way up from beneath the metal frame, Nik providing the initial lift that I’d needed to push one of the giant protective mattresses to the side. Then I’d squeezed between the exposed springs, clasping at the soft netting and swinging both legs over until I lay flat on my stomach and could haul Nik up with me.
We hadn’t long been jumping when a car’s headlights caught our failing bodies in mid-air. Both front doors were flung open and yells came from inside, but by the time the engine was cut we were gone, our flip-flops abandoned on the mattresses as we slipped out the way we’d come in and thudded to the ground. Bare feet pounding across the stone that hugged the water’s edge, we cheered into the darkness. I felt no guilt. I reasoned that the owner of the trampolines wouldn’t be making money from them at that hour anyway. We were simply visiting, our shoes the only evidence we’d been there at all. No harm done.
Besides, if they’d really wanted to keep us out, they’d have set better traps.
© The author