Books, lantern, aid kid. Check. Everything I needed was there. I only had to slip past our self-made checkpoint. I had figured it all out. Danny couldn’t resist his cigarettes and since they are forbidden down here, he always sneaked into another corridor. Leaving me with no more than four minutes to make my move. It had to be done now.
“I have a letter for number 26.”
As soon as I turned the corner these words were whispered from the dark. I couldn’t see who was standing there. Judging by the angle the words hit my ear I’d say he needed to be at least six feet tall. The sound of his voice was that of a blond man, or so I thought. Not yet old but burdened with memories of things that should have remained in the dark, like us. I couldn’t tell from his voice if he was wearing pants or not. I suppose he did, but anything was possible these days. He sounded friendly but slightly scared. As if he had never been under the earth before.
We were not always in the dark, you know. But when the bombs fell we had to do something. Number 26 of 50; let me think…I don’t know that man, really.
I do know he has the floors covered with mosaic tiles resembling those in Roman houses. Why spend money on all that? It’s mostly dark. No one will see. He even – right after it was announced unsafe to go up – let his maids transport all his valuables to this new room. Number 26. I believe nobody really likes him.
“Apart from the people staying here we don’t get a lot of visitors”, I said to the man before he stepped into the light. For a moment I tried to get rid of him but the others had noticed me. No way I could run now.
“ I’m not a visitor. I’m the postman.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. He was indeed blond and – if I’m not mistaken –
around 6 ft. 1. But that wasn’t why. The idea of the postman still carrying around messages for the dead was beyond belief. That he wasn’t killed on the way over was beyond believe too.
“I can take the letter and deliver it to him later. Or we can see if the door’s open and leave it on his mosaic tiles or the 18th century chair from his great-grandmother.”
I was only handing him options, mostly out of curiosity. Nobody gets letters here.
“Most certainly not. It’s an in-hand-delivery,” the postman said.
“ I can’t give it to you.” He shrugged his shoulders.
It’s that strange habit people have when they feel apologetic, as if to say: ‘this one is out of my hands’. Well it isn’t. It’s right there, smelling softly of perfume and debris.
“Then wait in the dark all you like. Nobody knows when and if people are coming back nowadays. It is not safe you know.”
So we stood there for a while, not entirely sure what would be next.
The pale postman and I.
“Did you read it?”
“I wouldn’t. Ever. A postman reading letters is like a housekeeper sniffing your underwear. It’s unheard of.”
And then he started to cry. Without any warning, for God’s sake. I was unsure what to do. We weren’t so acquainted that I could easily hug him. But different rules apply in this dark city we’ve created. Instead of a hug I stroked his hair and immediately felt embarrassed by doing so. I heard doors opening; people came to see what was happening and I just stood there. My right hand still at the same height as when I was stroking him, only now stuck in mid-air.
“There, there. Don’t cry.”
He took my hand and lowered it.
“You don’t know what it’s like, being a postman having to bring bad news all the time.
I promised never to read any letter. But then letter after letter I saw those faces. Shock, horror, sadness, anger; it was all there right in front of me. I know every detail of those expressions now. A raised eyebrow, the thin lines in a young woman’s face suddenly bursting and cracking, squinting eyes, lips turning purple, the most ugly faces one can imagine. How can I not read the letters and see what news I’m delivering? I know I’m not supposed to.”
Other people had been listening too. I heard them breathing in the dark. It was important to say something useful but I was clueless. “It’s not that bad really”
I tried to comfort him. His tears were coming to an end, making way for…hard to tell.
“I’m sorry. I got carried away. Please, give this to Mark. Tell him it’s from number 26”
I took the letter from him and turned it around in my hands. No. 26, underground shelters, Rabat. Why would the man from 26 send ME a letter? I don’t even know his name. It was not even addressed to me, but the postman read it; he knew more than I do. So I opened it. The paper was slightly damaged as if it had been wet and it clearly was written in the dark.
I suppose curiosity will get the best of you Mark
And to be honest, I hope it does
If you read this I’ll be dead.
I tried to follow some of the underground tunnels to the shore
You had mentioned escaping through them once
And I figured – what the hell – give it a go
Please don’t follow after me
It’s dangerous. Soldiers everywhere.
There’s nowhere for me to go…
I lowered the piece of paper and looked at the postman. I could only smile.
The postman hugged me. “At least this time I could save a life.”
This story was inspired by visiting the WWII shelters in Rabat, Malta during my residency. The shelters were numbered and some of them still had mosaic floors, badly damaged. There are various stories and legends mentioning underground tunnel systems underneath Malta, especially from Valetta to M’dina.