historiaster (noun): an inferior or mediocre historian
Victor’s collection began with the shrapnel and flak he gathered from the fields in the south of the island; scraps of parachute silk and the twisted section of a landing gear. He watched the dog-fights and often scooped up shell casings while they were still warm.
Laurence, on the other hand, had been evacuated to Malta’s sister island, Gozo, so he started out with only Food Distribution ration cards – one rotolo of sugar, four terzi of oil – and Shelter Permission tickets. He was younger than Victor, though, and as the years went by that showed in the lengths of the island he paced out in pursuit of new objects.
He found a flight instructor, working out of Luqa, who gifted him a Sutton harness and an old-fashioned Gosport Tube. Meanwhile, Victor was scrabbling about for trajbu lace-weaving pillows and combini bobbins, which showed folk history but had little worth as memorabilia. All the same, the tourists started to visit when he set up the War in Malta Museum from his lock-up garage in Marsaskala.
It took a while for Laurence to follow suit and establish the Malta Wartime Museum, because he was travelling to Italy to secure a rudder bar from a shot-down Hurricane and a wing from a CR42. They took pride of place in the display he set up in his living room, in Mellieha, alongside an old starter trolley he’d rescued from Hal Far.
To this point, it was all fairly friendly. Each was aware of the other, and dismissive of their rival’s collection, but insults hadn’t yet been exchanged. Those came when Laurence accused Victor of going behind his back to pay double for a decommissioned Tiger Moth training plane from the friendly flight instructor. Victor responded by calling Laurence kodard – cowardly – for his years spent hiding from the Luftwaffe on Gozo. Battle-lines were drawn.
The War in Malta Museum was extended into two adjacent garages to provide room for the Tiger Moth and for a Bren gun Victor had bought (illegally) from somewhere. Laurence’s Malta Wartime Museum moved into a small premises by the village square and you could, if you called ahead, arrange a tour of the air-raid shelter, carved from the soft limestone beneath the misraħ.
A publican from Strait Street in Valletta advertised in the Times of Malta to say that he’d be willing to part with his collection of laned; tokens given to barmaids to signify when sailors had bought them a drink. After being priced out of the Tiger Moth, Laurence made sure to outbid Victor for them, only for Victor to publicly announce that he’d never been interested in something which held that taint of immorality. Instead, he purchased a copy of two pastoral letters – one from 1930 and one from 1962 – in which the Catholic clergy instructed the Maltese how to vote to see off the threat of first constitutionalism and then socialism.
Laurence responded to this slight by purchasing a Bofors Anti-Aircraft gun and a magnetic skid sweep which had been used for minesweeping in the Grand Harbour. He now had items from the Army, Navy, and RAF – as well as occasional tours of the disused shelter – so all of the concierges at the Hotel Phoenicia agreed that his was the museum they would recommend to tourists; especially because it was situated in the picturesque north of the island rather than the fishing villages of the south.
Victor wasn’t willing to concede yet, though. He continued to add gabjun and gabbjetta cages to show Malta’s bird-trapping heritage, and he was one of the first on the scene when the Vulcan bomber crashed into the town of Zabbar. The wreckage was taken away for examination, of course, but not before Victor had secured a promise that the nose cone could come to his museum afterwards. At the same time, he managed to negotiate for one of the torpedo craft that the Italians had used in their abortive invasion attempt during the war, and public opinion about the relative merits of the two collections began to swing back in his favour.
By this stage, Laurence was muttering about the Health and Safety decision to discontinue tours of the air-raid shelter and the close relationship between Victor and the departing British Admiralty. They were an independent country now, he reminded anyone who’d listen, so Victor’s kow-towing to the Naval Officers was little short of embarrassing.
It was Laurence, though, who procured the crest of the 7th Mine Countermeasures Squadron, the last of the forces to leave Malta, and it was Victor who was left to write a letter to the editor of the Times complaining of institutional favouritism towards the Malta Wartime Museum.
No one knew if the attempt to join the two museums came from the Parliament or from some residual influence from the British but, either way, it was rejected out-of-hand by both Victor and Laurence. Even the mention of investment from the European Community couldn’t sway them and Victor, through the hacking cough which had become his trademark, said that he’d be in his grave before such a thing happened.
Laurence was in better health and able to keep something close to a dignified silence because the north of the island was becoming quite the attraction. He’d always had visitors from Sliema and St Julian’s, but the hotels began to proliferate all the way up the coast. He moved to a larger building and submitted an application to have the air-raid shelter reopened.
Unable to drive anymore, Victor sat in an armchair beside the Tiger Moth and tried to force tour buses to the door of the War in Malta Museum by sheer force of will. Those who did show up received more information about the Malta Wartime Museum – in the form of vitriol and bile – than they did about the museum they were actually visiting.
He was sunk deep in his armchair, then, when the lawyer from Valletta arrived. Victor didn’t hold out a hand as the man introduced himself, but when the lawyer said that he had to – regretfully – inform him of the passing of Laurence, Victor did struggle to his feet and clasp at the lawyer’s hand.
Laurence had died of a heart attack. It was a great shock and a great shame, especially coming so soon after the news of the award of EU money for the refurbishment of the Malta Wartime Museum.
Victor eyeballed the lawyer and tried to keep down a cough. He asked if there was anything more, anything else, or if that was the end of it.
‘He left this note for you,’ the lawyer said. ‘Shall I read it?’
Victor stared, coughed, then waved a hand.
‘Please accept the gift of the contents of my museum,’ the lawyer read. ‘Without you, my collection would have been vastly inferior and the Malta Wartime Museum wouldn’t have the enduring popularity it has.’ He paused. ‘Moreover, without my collection, the War in Malta Museum will continue to be vastly inferior and will never have the enduring popularity you crave.’
There came a noise from Victor like the crunching of scrap metal in a compactor and he doubled-over, with his hands on his knees. It was impossible to tell whether he was coughing or laughing; or, indeed, if his next movement would be to straighten up or to keel over onto the floor.