Things that batter

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Patatas-fritas

$2 chips spread out beyond the limits of most kitchen tables …

Today’s kids seem to be ignorant of the joys of pigging out on a decent feed of fish and chips. During school holidays they’re more likely to meet up at Maccas or Subway, or, if they’re anything like my daughter, the local Thai restaurant.

In my day we had two lunch choices; fish and chips, the purchase and consumption of which were a right of passage.

During school holidays me and my brother Anton would often end up at my cousins’ Mario and Phillip’s place where the morning madness, which included playing war (being the younger brothers, Phillip and I would have to be the Germans or Japanese) would give way to hunger hastened by the glorious aroma of the fish ‘n’ chip shop just a few hundred yards away.

As the youngest I’d have to make the trip to the fish n chip shop on Main Road East (now called The White Corner Fish and Chips), with my pockets full of 20 and 50 cent coins and an order list that included:

  • $2 chips
  • 8 potato cakes
  • 8 dim sims
  • 4 fish cakes
  • 4 sausages in batter
  • 1 Coke

The shop was run by a bloke named Jerry and was typically decorated by faded advertising posters, including a suggestive one of a girl on a motorbike holding a Chiko Roll. There were also flags of various nations painted around the top of the walls and I’d try guess what country they belonged to while waiting for my order.

After what seemed like ages Jerry’s wife would yell out: “hey boy, twodollarchip, aiyet potatocayke, aiyet dimzeem, four fishcayke, four sausage?”

Plurals weren’t her thing.

I’d grab the Coke from the fridge and hand over the princely sum of $6.50 ( I remember potato cakes being 5c and dim sims 8c). After counting all the coins Mrs Jerry would hand me a pillow sized package of steaming fat, salt and carbs which I’d try and carry back to my hungry brethren along with the heavy glass Coke bottle. The only way to do this without dropping the lot was to hold the Coke in one hand and tuck the package between my forearm and bicep of the other arm. It worked fine but resulted in second degree burns at the back of the elbow.

On my return the boys would peel the food package off my disfigured arms without so much of a thank you and carefully unwrap the bounty on the lounge room floor. In those days $2 chips spread out beyond the limits of most kitchen tables and we wanted to watch the Midday movie, which was usually a western or World War II classic. We’d momentarily stare at the food, mentally giving thanks while Mario, being the eldest, divided the potato cakes, dim sims, battered savs and fish cakes into four.

Once his hands were clear we attacked the lot like rabid dogs.  As John Wayne murdered people in black and white, we feasted over a sea of yellow stodge with a bowl of vinegar placed in the middle for us  to dip our chips – one time I stupidly tried drinking the vinegar which sparked a rather enlightened theological discussion between myself and Mario.

Mario: “Don’t drink the vinegar, it’s bad for you.”

Me: “Jesus drank vinegar.”

Mario: “And look what happened to him.”

Touche Mario. Touche.

The hectic sounds of culinary rapture and rustling paper soon slowed as we each hit a food wall, with battered savs and a not-insignificant 80c worth of chips still to go. But we’d persist, passing around the Coke bottle to wash the food down.

The drinking of the Coke was an event in itself. We’d take advantage of the burpy reaction of the Coke and a belly full of carbs with such gusto that were were able to belch out phrases like and “rum and raisin” and  “get fucked Phillip”. This gave us a second wind and we’d even be hungry enough for one final, violent feeding frenzy over the previously unwanted broken crispy chips that lurked till the very end.

In no time we’d be finished. The bowl of vinegar carefully taken to the kitchen sink, the paper scrunched up and thrown in the bin and last of the Coke poured down our throats.

Our kids don’t know what they’re missing.

Cold rage

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I don’t have an electric blanket. I happily go to bed and endure a few moments of testicle tightening chilliness rather than enjoy the sublime warmth that copper wiring looped in wool provides. I’m thinking it’s because of several life-threatening episodes that happened to me as a child because of electric blankets. No, I never wet my bed with the blanket on and risked electrocution, nor did my mattress ever catch fire. In fact the electric blanket in question wasn’t even mine. It was my mum’s.

Camilla loves her electric blanket. I remember as a kid going to weddings or Maltese dances and as the clock approached midnight Mum would have a look on her face that suggested we were all about to be turned into mice and pumpkins. “Huq, I forgot to turn on the electric blanket!” she’d exclaim to Dad, fearful of having to endure a marble-cold mattress. We’d get home and my Dad would have to run in the house and turn on the electric blankets in the hope they’d be warm by the time Mum got us to bed, cleaned the makeup off her face with Ponds and a had cup of tea. If it didn’t we’d hear about it.

electric-blanket350x350Ideally she would have remembered and we’d go home with the blankets on No.2 (my favourite setting which gave the bed warm and cool bits). Turning the blankets to No.3 was a no no if we weren’t in the house in case the bed caught fire. No.1 was just stupid.

On normal nights when we were at home it would be one of us kids’ jobs to turn on the blankets. As kids we had a few chores which weren’t exactly a burden. One was to get briquettes from the garage for our  hot water service. Another was to get potatoes from the garage – in those days you bought potatoes in a big sack and there was no room inside for them. That was my favourite chore, as carrying the spuds in a basket let me pretend we lived on a farm even the though the garage was just three metres from the kitchen. Another job was to polish the shoes (not just shoes, “de shoes”).

Then there was turning on the electric blankets, which was the easiest of the lot but led to much family torment. As soon as it got dark: “David, turn the electric blanket on?” Mum would ask nicely with a typical Maltese upper inflection.

“OK Mum,” I’d say out loud, before whispering to myself “just after I get through this level on Missile Command.”

Later that evening we’d be in the lounge room, one happy family. Mum would be sewing,  me and Dad laughing at Benny Hill, Anton would be slumped in the beanbag near the stereo with headphones on listening to ELO, and my sisters would be quietly pretending to play with dolls but all the while planning new ways to ruin my life. Then we’d all go to bed, all happy, fed and washed.

My restful demeanor turned to concern when I noticed my electric blanket wasn’t on. Then it would be one of horror when I realised it was my turn to turn the electric blankets on. Then, even before I had time to break into a cold sweat, I’d hear it: “Huq, Allah! DAVID!”

When I said I’d never wet the bed with the electric turned blanket on, it was only because I hadn’t done the latter.

G for George

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Sadly, my little G for George came across a far greater menace than Hitler’s Luftwaffe

I always had a fascination with aircraft, sparked by Dad’s job at the Government Aircraft Factory and his former life as an armament fitter in the Royal Air Force out of Malta. I loved it when he would take us to the air shows at Laverton RAAF Base to see Mirages, Phantoms and the new F-111s put through their paces, while Iroquois and Chinook helicopters dropped cars as part of their demonstrations. While most kids had posters of pop stars and footballers my bedroom was plastered with Hercules, Caribous, Orions and Mirages.

In the days before computers and flight simulators there weren’t too many ways for a young fella to indulge in his love of aviation apart from running around like an idiot with his arms spread out and making “gneeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeer” noises. My first toy aeroplane was a battery-powered pressed-metal Boeing 707 that taxied haphazardly around the kitchen floor with red lights flashing in its engines. I later had some fun toys like U-Fly It and Vertibird but nothing captured my imagination more than making plastic model kits of aeroplanes. I loved opening the box and seeing all the parts, breaking out the glue and going for it. However, I had little patience and my efforts were usually pretty ordinary. I never painted them, unless you include excess glue, so I had a room full of poorly made grey planes engaged a rather bland fishing line-assisted dogfight above my bed.

Then one day I got an Airfix model kit of an Avro Lancaster as a present and was lucky enough to have my cousin Phillip build and paint it for me. Phil, who went on to become a sign writer, was awesome at this sort of thing. The paintwork, from the matt black underbelly to the familiar brown and green camouflage upper surfaces, was top notch. He even painted the thumbnail sized pilots with great detail. My Lancaster took pride and place on the tallboy in my bedroom and I treasured it so much I didn’t even pick it up to play with it. It was painted in the livery of G for George, which belonged to 460 Squadron RAAF and flew 90 missions over occupied Europe; a record at the time. It was later flown to Australia and is now immortalised at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Sadly, my little G for George would not enjoy the same fortune and came across a far greater menace than Hitler’s Luftwaffe – my preschool sisters.I remember the day well. I was nine years old and came home from school in a happy mood to be greeted by Mum acting rather odd. I could feel her eyes glued to my back as I walked down the hallway to my room where I was met with the most appalling sight – G for George had crashed! My beautiful bomber was on its belly, undercarriage sheered off, propellers bent, guns snapped off, even the little plastic aircrew were dead and scattered around the wreckage! I shall spare you the horrific fate of the tail gunner, suffice to say it was surely against the Geneva Convention. I never did find his tiny head.

The flaps were hanging off the wings and the bomb bay doors were completely detached. G for George had well and truly bought it!

I screamed and went straight to my sisters’ room to seek vengeance only for Mum to get in the way and attempt to claim responsibility by claiming the plane was the victim of an unfortunate dusting accident. This was no dusting accident; this was the savage, orchestrated destruction of an aviation icon by evil minds and tiny hands. Mum continued to insist it was her, but the nervous smirks on the Twins’ faces told me otherwise.

Boris the Morris

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It was quite an effort to fit the six of us into a little Morris 1100!

Going for a long drive was a ritual. The night before, Dad would get the Melways or an RACV map and plan the trip with all the careful precision of an RAF Lancaster navigator. Then he’d prepare sandwiches. Sometimes they’d be steak with mustard which keep incredibly well in transit; but more often than not it would be typically Maltese fare of tomato paste sandwiches, to which we’d add olives and tuna at the picnic table.

On the morning of the trip, the car boot would be skilfully loaded, puzzle-like, with folding chairs, baby stuff for the twins, an Esky (that my parents called a car fridge) some soft drinks (Leed Lemonade), beach towels etc. It was quite an effort to fit all this stuff and the six of us into a little Morris 1100!

The seating configuration was my big brother and little sisters in the back, made all the more cramped by the twins’ medieval car seats that allowed them to look out the window, but provided as much safety as the electric chair. I always had to sit between my parents on the bench seat seeing as though I was most likely to get always got car sick. It sucked being the family sickie. My memories of long drives include getting knee capped by truck-like gear stick and watching a capful of Dettol swirling about in the bottom of a bucket held between my bruised knees. It could be worse for Mum, who’d often find herself playing the role of the bucket.

My susceptibility to car-sickness wasn’t helped by the acrid vinyl smell that cars had in those days, which made me feel sick before Dad even turned the key. For a time Mum gave me motion sickness tablets, only for me to throw up and see two little pills swishing around in the bucket in a cocktail of bile and disinfenctant.

After ensuring that everyone had been to the toilet, the gas stove was off and the sandwiches were on board, “Boris the Morris” – shit yeah, it had a name – would burst into life. We’d only get as far as the corner of our street where Dad would come to a stop and Mum would make us “do de sign of de cross”. In hindsight it’s kinda disturbing, though not at all surprising that they would feel the need for us to pray before every journey. Extra divine protection came with the little St Christopher medallion on the dashboard.

In-car entertainment was basic to say the least. We never had iPods, Nintendo DS or DVD players to pass the time. Boris didn’t even have a radio. So we’d spend the trip playing I-spy and Hey Charger, or doing the Row, Row, Row Your Boat medley, which would suddenly stop with a loud, albeit unexplained, “shhhh police” whenever Mum saw a cop car. Sometimes my brother Anton would attempt to entertain us by being the voice of Boris the Morris with a lame-arse characterisation that amused the twins, but had me suddenly appreciating the whirlpool patterns made by the Dettol.

The Morris 1100 was a fuel efficient vehicle; however it seemed to chew up a hell of a lot of fan belts. This meant the engine would get hot. Dad would stop, open the bonnet, grumble and yell out “fan belt”. Mum would save the day by taking her pantyhose off to use as a makeshift belt. I’m amazed more accidents weren’t caused by drivers being distracted by mum’s impromptu roadside strip teases.

Mum wasn’t always so helpful. One time Dad was looking under the bonnet before we left home. Mum, in a playful mood, beeped the horn causing him to hit his head on the hood. The peaceful Sunday morning was shattered by the sound of:

BEEP

THUD

“YOU STUPID BASTARD!”

Oh yes he did say that.

I reckon that was the only time I ever saw Dad really upset at mum; apart from years later when the doctor said he had high cholesterol and Mum became a bread, salt and meat Nazi – “huq Allah fuckin’ fish again?”

The trip home would always end with a enthusiastic welcome home by our dog Butch who’d hear Boris from at least a kilometre away and run up the road and wait before running alongside the car as we approached home.

In 1976 constant mechanical problems saw Dad reluctantly trade Boris in for used but gleaming Holden HQ Kingswood. Holly the Holden, (a name which didn’t stick and thankfully presented no opportunity for Anton to provide a voice) had a radio which Dad would switch between 3KZ and 3MP. Compared to Boris it was cavernous inside. From the middle front seat and would have to stretch to reach the new St Christopher medallion on the dash – with my foot! The three-on-the-tree auto meant there was no gear stick in the way and I could spread by elbows out while holding the bucket.

This was luxury!

I got less sick in the Kingswood too. My dad says it’s because he had a rubber strap hanging down off the rear bumper which eliminated static. How this stopped car sickness I’ll never know, but it seemed to work.

The Mum Whisperer

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When my older brother Anton was in his mid teens he discovered he had a gift that probably saved our lives on more than one occasion. I can’t remember the details behind this amazing discovery except to say it began with the two of us carrying on in a manner that well and truly gave Mum the shits. We could see she was about to lose it and then an amazing thing happened. Instead of using me as a human shield Anton looked at her and uttered the word “volcano” in a slow and somewhat patronising way – “Volcaaaanooo”. It was his way of saying “she’s gonna blow!”

I was mid way through my third fearful Hail Mary when all of a sudden Mum lost it. Not in a better-call-the-doctor-to-remove-the-egg-flipper-from-my-arse lost it, but laughing lost it. She pissed herself. After that any time Mum was about to crack it, Anton would calm the situation using the “volcaaaanooo trick”. I later learned to my detriment that I didn’t share his talent. My only attempt at using it was met with the words “I’ll give you fucking volcano!” and a smack on the head.

Volcano reminds me of another episode years before where a couple of words managed to diffuse a very tense situation. We were all at the kitchen table on a Sunday afternoon and as usual us kids were being noisy little shits.

My Dad valued one thing more than anything – peace-and-quiet. “Dad?” we’d ask. “What do you want for your birthday?” “Peace and quiet,” would be his instant reply. There was none of it on this Sunday and suddenly Dad was staring at us, slowly knocking on the table in a menacing way that suggested if we didn’t shut the fuck up we’ll meet the same fate as the roast beef.

On hearing the knocking my sister Michelle, who was about three and immensely cute, said “who’s there?”

The knocking stopped and for a second you could have heard a pin drop on a sponge. The smile that appeared on Dad’s face before he burst into laughter is still one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

The Sentence

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The clanging sound of the cutlery drawer opening at speed was one of pending doom.

It’s fair to say I swear a lot. I could blame our working-class upbringing, but my parents did more than enough to discourage our potty mouths.

When we were little, any foul language was met with audio/visual threats. For example, Dad would respond to rude words by lighting a match and yelling “I’ll burn your tongue!” This usually did the job; as did the slightly less menacing promise of a thorough oral cleansing, dramatically emphasised with a bar of Velvet soap held up to our faces.

As we grew the threats were occasionally replaced by actual punishment at the hands of my mother who’d use the nearest kitchen utensil to administer swift and lethal justice. In our house, the clanging sound of the cutlery drawer opening at speed was one of pending doom. This served as a deterrent that worked for the most part, but occasionally the odd snippet of filth would slip through our careless lips, earning Mum’s wrath.

My most memorable effort is still discussed at family gatherings – for both the degree of foul language used by a 9 year-old boy, and the resulting violence used against a 9 year-old boy.

I’m not sure what made me call my older brother Anton a “cocksucker” or how I even knew such a word existed. But I used that very phrase one Saturday morning in his bedroom. No doubt my dummy spit was one of frustration born by the continued oppression a younger sibling must endure, but I could have found a less offensive way to express it. And I also could have expressed it more than metre away from my mother who handed out her rapid-fire summary justice before I managed to utter the third syllable.

As was often the case Mum’s retribution was ironically accompanied by a tirade of swearing that put anything I said in the shade.

The assault over, I maintained as much dignity as I could muster and responded in the only way a little brother can when punished for using grown up vulgarity. The smug look on Anton’s 13-year-old face turned to horror as he realised what I was about to say: a sentence that is one of the strongest tools in the battered younger sibling’s meagre arsenal.

“Anton taught me how to say that!”

Boom! He copped it good the poor bastard. I never did recall him teaching me that.

The Sentence served me well over the years and would always ensure that he copped the same if not harder than I did whenever I used language unbecoming of a child. Like the time in the kitchen when I called him a poofter. By then I learned to yell out “Anton taught me how to say that” before I got hit, meaning he’d cop the wooden spoon and I’d escape without a finger being laid on me.

My mum explained

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When I as in my early 20s I worked in a pub in London where I met a white Zimbabwean chap named Scotty, who was barely five foot tall and really enjoyable to be around. However, I learned that there was a lot more to Scotty than met the eye. A veteran of the Rhodesia Zimbabwe Civil War, he was in a commando unit that got up to some pretty heavy stuff, which I’d hear about from his mates or sometimes from the man himself when he’d had a few.

One story told how Scotty was lying low in the bush observing an enemy camp when an enemy soldier came out to take a piss in the shrubs near him. Fearing he’d be spotted Scotty got up and slashed the guy’s throat killing him instantly. It was hard to believe this jovial little guy who’d do anything for you had slain a man in the heat of the moment.

My mum reminds me of Scotty. She is diminutive, kind and selfless and for the most part lives a peaceful and loving existence. Just don’t piss in front of her!

Camilla Lucy Bonnici (nee Abela) has commando skills that would be in the SAS Handbook if it had a section on suburban family warfare. Her ninja-like speed and deadly skill with kitchen utensils meant you’d often be nursing a bruised arse before you even knew what hit you.

I have been on the receiving end of such attacks, but I’ve also had the sheer pleasure of being witness to my siblings copping the full force of her Maltese fury.

Out foxed

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The Sweet's Fox on the Run very nearly killed my brother.

One weekend my brother and I were on the couch just chilling out. Anton was singing the Sweet’s Fox on the Run with the appropriate emphasis on Fox so it sounded like “Faaaarx on the Run … “.

Our little sister Charlene, who was six at the time and excelled at dobbing, yelled out “Mum, Anton said fuck!” and within seconds he was getting several layers of shit smacked out of him. Mum must have travelled through three walls to get from the girls’ bedroom to the living room in the 3.3 seconds it took to arrive on the scene to hand out justice.

It went like this (in about the same time it takes to read it):

Faaarx on the Run

“Mum, Anton said fuck!”

“Huq, you fucken rude bastard”

Aaaaaargh! Nooo! Ouch!

Ha ha ha (me laughing)

I sat on the couch transfixed in equal measures of amusement, awe and horror. I instantly rose to the defence of my hapless brother. Not because I felt sorry for him, but because I was worried that this crazy woman could turn on me. I calmly explained that Anton said fox as in Fox on the Run, but she was gone and laying into Charlene for swearing and dobbing before I could finish my explanation.

Ironically mum hated it when we dobbed.

The Blood Bath, Parts I & II

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It wasn’t just swearing that sparked mum’s lightening aggression. Thankfully I was a spectator to her ferocious reaction to one of the funniest and bizarre series of events to occur in our family home.

It was around the time of the Fox on the Run debacle. It was a Saturday afternoon and Dad was working overtime. My sisters were having a bath together and quietly splashing away. I was in the lounge room, mum was doing some housework and Anton went to the toilet. The toilet was next to the bathroom with the bath against the plaster wall that separated the two.

All was quiet until Anton, while sitting on the loo decided to hum Tchaikovsky. Why a teenage boy would be running through the 1812 Overture on the shitter is beyond me. But that’s exactly what he was doing. Without the benefit of The London Symphony Orchestra and Band of the Welsh Guards for effect, he decided to bang on the walls when it came to the big finale – da da da da dada dah dah daaah BOOM BOOM!

All hell broke loose. I remember hearing two loud thuds, followed by the splash of bath water and two little wet, naked and terrified girls running and screaming through the house in the mistaken belief that we had been bombed by the boogie monster.

It was about to get better.

In a matter of seconds mum had shaken out of her confused state to assess the situation and attack the source of the mayhem. This is where I wish I grew up in an age of mobile phones with cameras. Mum demonstrated in the most awesome possible way that even the toilet was no sanctuary from her fury. Above the sound of screaming twin girls you could hear the toilet door being kicked in, the shrill from my brother who had no idea about the pandemonium for which he was copping a hiding, my cursing mother and the loud snap of a toilet seat breaking.

It gets even better!

The Blood Bath, Part II

A few weeks after Anton’s bruises healed and my parents replaced the broken toilet seat, an incredible sense of déjà vu struck our household. It was a Saturday afternoon, dad was at work, the girls were in the bath, I was in the lounge, mum was doing housework and Anton was on the toilet. Once again I heard the splash of bath water and two little wet, naked and terrified girls running and screaming through the house. Mum needed no time to assess the situation and immediately went on the attack; once more kicking down the toilet door and accosting my poor, confused brother. Again there was a snapping noise, but this time it was the wooden spoon mum used to hit him breaking in half.

Everything was almost exactly like the first incident, except there was no BOOM BOOM.

Mum fucked up big time. It wasn’t my brother banging on the wall that sent the girls screaming from the bathroom at all. One of them poured a whole bottle of Dettol into the bath causing a burning sensation that caused their distress.

An empty Dettol bottle and milky grey bath water would prove Anton’s innocence, but by then it was too late.

On Mum’s Secret Service

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One of the coolest things I made was an FM bug.

When I was about 15, I found a new hobby making things with electronic kits that required soldering components like resistors and transistors onto printed circuit boards. One of the coolest things I made was an FM bug. This crude spy device had a little microphone which can be picked up from another room using a radio tuned to around 83 on the FM dial. One day after school I hid it in my sisters’ room and sat at the kitchen table listening to them talking on my ghetto blaster.

Mum asked what I was listening to and I told her it was Michelle and Charlene. Intrigued, she sat down only to hear Charlene swearing in Maltese. In a flash she was gone. One second my mother was with me, the next I could hear her dishing out carnage through my radio.

Remember that movie Who Dares Wins about the British SAS attack on the Iranian Embassy siege in London? What happened to my sisters reminds of the scene where the terrorists are chatting away totally oblivious to the fact that commandos were about to burst through a wall and shoot them through the head. My sisters could not have been prepared for mum to come bursting through the door to hand out the bollocking they copped.

For my efforts I copped a smack across the back of the head for spying on my sisters – even the SAS thank their intelligence people.