Our first swim in Malta: confined by a row of orange buoys in the distance, we dip under lapping waves. There are a few other swimmers, but we’re easily outnumbered by tan-seekers, stretched out on towels across giant slabs of concrete.
Mum and my towels are set back from the water on a wooden bench. We exit the water and sit to dry off, watching the light twinkle on the late afternoon water. Opposite us the sun descends; soon it’ll disappear behind one of the tall apartment buildings that line Balluta Bay.
We climb a set of stairs to reach street level, but are blocked from going any further. People wearing damp swimming costumes and backpacks are crowded on the pavement, facing the large church across the road. The church’s forecourt is also packed with people, all in formal attire. A cream-coloured vintage convertible with a white ribbon strung across its windscreen in a V shape is parked in front of them.
While the two groups wait for the bride and groom to emerge through the church’s open doors, a band of men set about distributing white helium balloons to the wedding guests. Then, they cross the road to share the large surplus of balloons among us, the cossie-clad spectators.
In a corner of the church’s forecourt, a table is loaded with dozens of glasses of champagne. These are passed around to guests, some of whom let their balloons’ strings go prematurely while trying to juggle the champagne flutes with purses and cameras. We spectators don’t face the same challenge.
The doors of the church are open, but the bride and groom are yet to appear. The first of three photographers exits the building, and not long after the bell overhead begins to toll ‘Here Comes The Bride’. The newlyweds — both of them beautiful — exit, the horns of passing vehicles sound, and the helium balloons are released. A few get tangled in overhead power lines, but the remainder fly into the sky.
Two days later, Mum and I return to the bay for a morning swim. It’s barely past eight o’clock, but the church’s forecourt is again full of people. This time nearly everyone’s dressed in black.
We pick a spot further around the bay from our previous swims to catch the early sunlight. We warm ourselves for a while, and then slowly sidle into the cool water. At half past eight, the church’s bell rings a repeated pattern: octave, perfect fifth, lower octave.
A few cars pull up in front of the church. A wooden coffin is lifted from one; the white flowers on its lid wobble slightly as the pall bearers mount the steps and enter the church. The mourners follow the coffin inside.
When we’ve dried off, Mum and I stop at a nearby cafe to buy coffee and pastries. It’s nearing nine o’clock now, but latecomers are still power walking along the promenade towards the church. Outside the cafe, the drivers of the funeral fleet sit in the sun drinking espresso. Above us a couple of white helium balloons, not yet fully deflated, are still tangled in the power lines.