Armchair Adventures and Maltese Memories

After yesterday’s hearty – or heart-straining – blow-out, today, I find myself resigned to the bear-shaped rut in my settee. By blow-out, I mean 2000+ calories of booze or 28 units. Yes, as an overweight alcoholic, my life is measured in units, calories and grams of fat. As an alcoholic, yesterday’s blip was like popping the cork on a champagne bottle. As an overweight man, it was a little disappointing – still, I went for a five-mile trek on the afternoon. I long for the day when my introversion no longer inspires binge-drinking, but that day is not here and needs must. I try to take comfort from the five-mile walk and the four miles the day before and two miles the day before that – and I try to forget the three days prior, when I was paralysed to the bear rut, curtains closed, enduring a freak-but-common period of severe depression, coupled with grief. Anyway, for what it was worth, yesterday was good and I feel better for it, even if, today, my hangover from last night’s drunk enforces a day of reclusivity.

So, yes, today my travels will be of the imagination. Perhaps a few episodes of The Office (U.S) for light relief, but the main event will be a revisit to Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. The title itself, beyond the literal term, is a morbid image, for me. I see a tear of blood down the stony face of a soldier.

This film holds a special memory for me, one that may induce a tear in itself. Over 12 years ago, and using the inheritance my grandmother had left me, I booked a holiday for two to Malta – on impulse (nothing new there). The same day, I walked into my local watering hole and asked my father, ‘What are you doing next Tuesday?’ He joked, ‘How the bloody hell should I know? I’ll probably be in here having a pint.’ I said, ‘No, you’ll be in Malta with me.’ He was stunned and happy, proud that his son was doing this for him, and more so for declaring it in front of his friends. But then he turned and said, ‘Oh, I can’t, I’ve got a doctor’s appointment.’ His friends laughed at this comment, and I told him to stop being so bloody stupid. We sat and drank the afternoon away and talked all things Malta – ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘the resilence of the Maltese during the war; a wonderful people,’ (the other day I was watching The Malta Story, and I know this was the basis of his thoughts and feelings; I know my dad, he read very little, other than in the newspapers and the novels of his youth – Douglas Bader was his war hero, he loved Reach for the Sky). The next day my dad cancelled his appointment.

Malta was a drunken affair. With the exception of a fortnight camping in Norfolk, the same can be said for all of my trips – and Norfolk was after a stint in rehab – but this holiday was an especially drunken affair, because I was drinking double JD’s and double So Co’s, with coke, in the same glass. My dad paid for his holiday in my drinks – and he always knew, and said, it would end up being this way. We drank hard on the nights, in Qawra, Buggiba, St Paul’s Bay and even in St Julian’s Bay (which is supposedly the party capital of Malta, although it is actually rather tame), and I’d wake-up at midday, to the usual hangover, to find my dad gone. I’d always find him in the hotel bar, where he had, as he always would when we went away, made friends with the staff. My dad had so many stories to tell and people loved them. I used to be embarrassed by them and thought people found him boring, but I learnt over the years how respected he was, by all ages, but more often than not by younger people, and then I felt proud of him, like I was as a young kid – but adolescence and the petty ego of youth often seems to beat this pride out of us.

Aside from drinking, we saw enough of the island during the day, so we didn’t feel like we were wasting our time. We took a bus towards Popeye Village, only to miss the last connecting one and have to walk the last two miles through the sparse and romantically primitive farming land of Malta – this was no mean feat for my aging father and he felt good to have done it, although not at the time (we had to stop every 200 metres). Robert Altman’s Popeye had been my favourite film as a child and my dad had been forced to endure the feature enough times that he was content to see the film-set-come-tourist-attraction. However, when we arrived we only had 20 minutes to look around – thanks to my waking up late, which my father was good enough to remind me of, many times.

We also went to Valetta. I went twice actually, the second time dad stayed with his ‘new friends’, the staff, at the bar in the hotel. We went into some of the churches and read about some of the history of the place, and we stopped off many times in the bars, the most notable of which was a small bar, off the main shopping street, called The Pub. It is now called Olly’s bar. This is the bar where Oliver Reed would die, a few months later, after a typical session and arm-wrestling with some sailors. We were actually in Malta when they were filming Gladiator and we met some of the producers. We had been on a prepaid trip to the Blue Grotto, but it had been too windy to take the boat (this happened the second time I went to Malta too). Instead they took us to a bar, and my dad, typically involving himself, started talking to some men who told him they were making a film about gladiators. At the time I was studying Performing Arts and my father insisted on telling them this in the hope he might swing me a role. I made him hush, out of embarrassment, which seems very silly in ever-faithful hindsight. It wasn’t until the second time I went to Malta that I realised we had been in the pub Oliver Reed had died in. Then, The Pub had become Olly’s Bar, newspaper clippings on the walls, and I spent many hours drinking in there, in some ridiculous homage to the great actor. I remember stumbling out after drinking seven double whiskeys in quick succession (and I was already drunk when I entered), mostly bought by a sweet old man I had befriended – and against my will (every time I turned round I had another whiskey). I remember pretending I was Catholic, for some saft reason (I was probably questioning my thoughts on God again), and when I left the bar I could barely stand up. I was writing a diary at the time and the writing on this day is barely legible. But this particular trip to Malta is a story for another day – two alcoholics and not a moment sober, literally.

On the night of the blighted Blue Grotto trip, we went to St Paul’s Bay. It was raining and we went to the cinema to watch The Thin Red Line. It was the first time I’d ever tried salted popcorn – which is all they sold in the cinema. Dad hated the popcorn and fell asleep during the film. I loved the film and the popcorn. Afterwards we went into an English bar. We had been contemplating taking a trip to Sicily, but the barman told us it was a bad idea, said it was dangerous in the streets after 6pm, because of the mafia. It didn’t stop me wanting to go, but because of the time of year we could only get flights and they were too pricey. The Thin Red Line, whenever mentioned, was always a cue to relive our memories of Malta.

One thing, like a film, can hold so many memories. Ironically, I can barely remember the film. I just remember thinking it was better than Saving Private Ryan, which came out about the same time and sweeped the oscars, over Malick’s critically acclaimed drama.

A couple of days ago I watched Malick’s Badlands, again, and today I shall watch this film, teary-eyed as it makes me, missing my dad, all in preparation for a trip to the cinema to watch his new film, The Tree of Life. I expect this film will make me wish I was director, believe I could be a director. This will be my armchair adventure. I shall come away with delusions of grandeur and no doubt start planning a film. Perhaps the main theme will be grief. Grief and Alcohol.

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