The Eye of Horus, Excerpt Two: The Air Raid Shelter

It sounded like more guns had begun firing as Monique followed Anne towards a doorway in a stone wall on the south side of the bus station. She'd probably have walked past it without noticing, except for the stream of people filing into it. Beyond the doorway was a set of steps leading downwards under electric lights attached to the arched stone ceiling. She was too busy watching where she was putting her feet to pay much attention to her surroundings but was aware of descending a further set of steps, at right angles to the first, before she emerged into an enormous space. She stopped and someone bumped into her from behind and cursed.

'Sorry,' she said, as she moved to one side.

'Come this way, Monique,' said Anne, turning to take her arm and leading her away from the entrance.

Monique became aware that they were in what felt like a section of the London Underground, only here everything was finished in stone rather than tiles and no adverts were being displayed. There was also a marked absence of rails. A broad, arched stone tunnel headed off in a straight line in both directions, perhaps for a hundred yards or more either way before it came to end walls. Illumination came from dim electric lights hanging at intervals from the shoulders of the arched roof.

There was enough light to see that most of the space was filled with very wide wooden bunk beds. There were three lines of double-height bunks extending along the length of the space, one in the centre and one set a little apart from it on either side. Two further lines of bunks along the walls were stacked three high. A lot of people were in the shelter, and more were coming in through several entrances, but it was far from crowded.

Anne walked to a relatively unoccupied area and sat on the mattress on a lower bunk, slightly hunched so her head didn't hit the one above it. Monique sat beside her.

'What is this place?' she asked.

'It's part of the Floriana railway tunnel,' said Anne. 'I can't give you much detail but, late in the last century, they built a railway from Valletta to Mdina. It closed at the beginning of the 1930s. Valletta station was built underground, beyond the City Gate from here and off to the right. The tracks then crossed the defensive ditch over a bridge that's still there, at a much lower level than the bridge carrying the road to the City Gate. Then the railway passed under parts of Floriana in a tunnel, and this is one section of it.

'Air raid shelters in Malta come in all shapes and sizes. A lot of them are like rabbit warrens and can get really claustrophobic. Many were dug officially, but then people could pay to dig out private areas for extra space and comfort, or just dig their own under their houses. Most rely on oil lamps or candles rather than electric lights as here. These railway tunnels form the biggest of the shelters and, as you can see, they can accommodate a huge number of people.'

'This brings back memories I'd prefer to leave buried, of nights spent on underground railway platforms during the Blitz in London,' said Monique. 'Do you think we are likely to have to be here for long?' She was beginning to wonder how Bob would feel if he returned to the hotel and found she was unaccounted for in an air raid.

'No, I don't. There was a time when I'd have given you a different answer, but the darkest days do seem to be well behind us. To give you an idea of what I mean, I saw some figures in 3 Scots Street quite recently that said that during the worst month, in April last year, over 6,700 tons of bombs were dropped on Malta. The document I saw compared that to around 18,000 tons of bombs dropped on Britain during the whole period of the Blitz from September 1940 to May 1941. Given how small Malta is in comparison, just 17 miles long by 9 miles wide, that gives you an idea of how badly we were hit. The same document said that in the first half of last year, the islands were attacked on 154 successive days and nights, often with many raids every day and every night. To look at that another way, there was only one 24-hour period during the whole of the first half of 1942 when there were no air raids on Malta.'

'Have many people been killed?' asked Monique.

'I sometimes think it would be better not to know, but the same document said that over 1,500 civilians had been killed by bombing in Malta and more than twice that many seriously injured, and that's from a civilian population of only 270,000.

'It didn't say so in the document, but I can tell you from personal experience that there were times when a large part of the population of Malta was effectively living in air raid shelters, day after day and night after night. Life has got a lot easier since then but just imagine what this place would be like with thousands of people down here, with entire families on every tier of every bunk.'

'It doesn't bear thinking about,' said Monique. 'Let's change the subject. Do you mind if I pick your brains about something else, Anne, something totally unconnected? Someone I was talking to mentioned a bar on Strait Street called Captain Bianchi's. Do you know anything about it?'

'Only by reputation, Monique. I've heard the place associated with the black market and prostitution. To put that into context, you could say the same of a good many other bars, music halls, restaurants and lodging houses on Strait Street. The street is the place in Valletta where the crews of visiting ships and other servicemen go for a good time and it's often referred to as "The Gut". It was badly damaged in parts by bombing, but I get the impression that its popularity never really waned and I believe it's seen a resurgence since the end of the siege. My dancing used to be done in rather more salubrious places and I've always made a point of avoiding most of Strait Street.'

'Thank you, that's helpful,' said Monique.

'It's difficult to tell down here, but I think the guns have stopped firing, which is a good sign,' said Anne. 'While we're here, is there anything else your personal guide to Malta can help you with?'

'One thing has been intriguing me. I like to think I'm good at picking up languages and can speak several. But I'm finding it hard to make much sense of it when I hear people speaking Maltese. I get the impression that just about everyone also speaks English here anyway, but I'm fascinated to know more about the Maltese language.'

'Yes, dancing your way around Europe is a good way of acquiring an ear for languages,' said Anne. 'I can't speak Maltese but after being here for so long I find I can pick up the meaning of quite a lot of what I hear around me. Someone told me once that Maltese is made up of a mix of about 30% of an old form of Arabic with 50% standard Italian and Sicilian. The remaining 20% comes from English and other sources. A complication to watch out for is that there are lots of words in English that can have two different Maltese equivalents, one from Arabic and one from Italian or Sicilian.'

'Thank you,' said Monique. 'I'm going to have to listen more carefully when I'm out and about.'

Anne lay back on the bunk and closed her eyes.

'Are you all right?' asked Monique.

'I'm just trying to convince myself that after the wine we drank I don't need to go to the toilet. They're a little less dreadful here than in most air raid shelters I've been in but, to be blunt, pissing into a smelly bucket with just a curtain for privacy isn't my idea of the best way to end a night out.'

Anne closed her eyes again. Monique watched her for a while, letting her thoughts drift over things she and Bob needed to do. She wondered how his evening was going.

'Thank God for that,' said Anne opening her eyes and sitting up. 'That's the all clear.'

It took Monique a moment to tune in to the muted sound of the sirens.

Anne looked around. 'I'll show you the best way out to get to the City Gate.' She picked up Monique's handbag from the mattress and held it out to her. Then she looked at it with a puzzled expression. 'This is very heavy, Monique. What do you keep in it?'

Monique watched Anne's face as realisation dawned.

'Ah, I see. A lipstick, a powder compact and a pistol. Essential companions for every girl on her night out in Malta.' Anne smiled and handed over Monique's handbag without further comment.