Till Death Do Us Part – A Strange Story of Animal Love and Human Friendship

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The way it was  – Lawrence and Chris sharing a special moment on Christmas Day  David Bugeja (c) 2016

Lawrence died at 4 a.m. on Monday. It was a good death. He gasped and croaked and flopped down from the coat rail to the bottom of the wardrobe. No signs of a prolonged struggle or drawn out pain. Not one plucked out feather, nor even a spattering of coagulated blood marked the point where the bird struck wood. Indeed he must have already been dead the moment he slipped off the rail.

The eerie early morning silence alerted Chris that something very wrong must have just happened.

The wardrobe lock up had been going on for several years – a necessary precaution to avoid disturbing neighbours since the rooster must crow as all roosters do at the break of dawn.

Only the pitch dark of the shut wardrobe did the trick of delaying the bird’s innate response to first light.

Still, you could hear the bird crowing – and never later than 5 a.m. – if  you were sleeping in the bed just next to the cooped up bird. That’s what woke you up for work every morning Chris said when he called me up the same day to share the loss of his dear friend.

I never saw the glazed eyes, gaping beak, wilted feathers, claws crunched up in the contorted spasm of death for the bird was nowhere to be seen by the time I arrived at Chris’s apartment late that evening.

Chris had loved Lawrence too much to keep holding on to the carcass until friends arrived to pay their last respects.

Best to get the gory business over as fast as possible on the way to work – pick the bird up, stuff it into a small sized black garbage bag and tip it unceremoniously into the public skip a hundred feet down the road.

I could do nothing to dispel the evil despondent mood charring Chris’s spirits and when the day turned dark and a heavy pall of silence permeated the apartment – for of course the rooster could crow no more – it was clear that Chris had suddenly become aware that a part of his life, his animal love, had been savagely torn out of him.

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Sharing a toast – Lawrence’s last Christmas on this Earth David Bugeja (c) 2016

Oh yes, the memories were too raw and thick for consolation: here was the ten year old single malt Talisker whisky that Chris had shared with Lawrence – once on Christmas Day…

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Talisker single malt whisky aged ten years – Chris never once shirked  from his dutiful respect towards his avian friend  David Bugeja (c) 2016

… and once last January 5 – the bird’s birthday marking the decisive moment seven years earlier when Chris had haggled for the bird with a hillbilly farmer from Mqabba.

Thirty Euro and a crate of Skol Lager sealed the cut-throat deal.

The rooster would now join Chris and Sheila in Chris’s top floor apartment at Hamrun.

What a strange trio – rabbit (Shelia) and rooster (Lawrence) and renaissance man (Chris).

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Sheila lords it over the guest bedroom  David Bugeja (c) 2016

Perhaps not so strange either – I think there was a bit of Chris and Sheila in Lawrence and a bit of Lawrence and Sheila in Chris as there sure was a bit of Lawrence and Chris in Sheila.

The trio were inseparable, death excepting.

Lawrence loved his whisky as did Chris.

And Chris never tired of experimenting with his high flown artistic fancies – watercolours, oils, handmade silver jewellery, pottery – just as Lawrence never tired from flying wild and high across the open plan two bedroom apartment, free to perch on a coat rail here, a spigot there or atop the fridge  or even the gas cooker by the shaft window. The apartment was the rooster’s domain as it was Chris’s and Sheila’s.

Sheila mirrored Chris in his every mood. At times taciturn and lost deep in rabbity thought as she lay sprawled on her bed in her bedroom, other times flitting around all rooms jettisoning  her droppings at will just like Lawrence.

But that’s when Chris would lurch out of a clouded  hazy daydream and strike out wielding one hell of a mean  broom at the noisome pair he had adopted out of animal love.

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Moving around the apartment I couldn’t help remarking the impact of this young man on my life.

Ten years ago I couldn’t ride a bike at all – even the simple act of achieving proper balance seemed like some far off arcane mystery I’d never learn to unravel.

A decade later and here I was having clocked up tens of thousand of solo cycled kilometres – Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, the Ukrainian Carpathians.

I had even got melanoma in the process of being butchered by the sun when trekking across the Balkans and Italy during July and August for ten years running…

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Shaman’s den! Inset photo at bottom right – Bingemma Chapel at night after an all day  bike ride to Gozo – Chris on the left, me on the right  David Bugeja (c) 2016

Chris was the man who shattered the mystery and in fifteen minutes taught me how to ride a bike.

One short lesson at Floriana Horns Works Ditch is all it took to get me started out with cycling – achieving the proper balance in under ten minutes and getting to grips with shifting gears in just another five.

The next day I cycled twenty-five kilometres solo at night – Pieta, Valletta Crucifix Wharf, Marsa, Paola, Fgura,  Cospicua, back to Pieta.

Three months later and I was wandering around solo with my bike in southeastern Sicily.

One year down the line and I cycled 4200 kilometres across Italy, Bosnia, Slovenia and Croatia – summer 2007, the hottest Italian summer in two hundred years.

There are pictures of Chris and I, off on our Malta and Gozo all day cycling pilgrimages, strewn around the apartment – immortalised shared moments on the road like the iconic timed exposure picture we took at eleven at night on the doorstep of Bingemma chapel.

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Chris was a true friend to me all through these years but perhaps never as much as when last summer I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma.

He was quick to react and was at my side the day I called him up to break the numbing news. He brought with him a stock of pharmacy stuff – bandages, iodine solution, painkillers – I could not go out and fetch for myself.

He saw  my shock, horror, pain and felt at a loss as to what to say.

But then he said – Tibzax, tibzax (don’t be afraid).

I can never forget that word for it means everything to me – a distillation of genuine friendship.

All Text and Photographs Copyright (c) David Bugeja 2016

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