In Malta, many vehicles have windscreen stickers bearing slogans: boasts about the kind of journey you might expect to take in them, or a statement about the driver. Among others I’ve seen ‘Hardcore Ride’, ‘Daddy’s Taxi’, ‘Baby Think Twice’ and ‘Life In Heaven’. The last two worried me because they appeared on public buses.
The Number 65 is one of those buses: a 1960s orange-and-chrome Leyland rattler, the sort the EU is trying to phase out. Its slogan is ‘Gallant’-something; I can’t make out the second word because the letters are peeling away.
Gallant certainly doesn’t refer to the driver. He barks: “One way or whole day? One way or whole day? One way or whole day?” until I make my choice and hand over the fare. He keeps the change.
I’m not confident he knows how to drive a bus. He fails to pull in at the next stop, slamming on the brakes five metres later when he notices the running, waving woman. She hauls herself aboard, breathless, and we’re away again before she can even close her handbag. An empty seat catches up with her and she topples into it.
We pass dry-stone rubble walls which look as though they might collapse at the merest touch. The last of the summer’s prickly pears protrude from swollen cacti like sexually transmitted diseases only the pages of medical textbooks should have to suffer. In the interior mirror I can see the driver picking his nose and eating what he reaps. There’s a black rubber spider dangling from his mirror and I wonder whether it’s been hung for Halloween, which is two days away, or whether it’s always there. I suspect the latter.
A ticket inspector hops on: he’s all of sixteen with the air of authority that comes with a bumfluff beard. He checks people’s tickets, one by one, tearing them slightly to show they meet with his approval. I bet he wishes he had a proper gadget for clipping holes. Then he sits behind me, playing noisy beeping games on his mobile phone.
We are ascending a steep, straight hill toward Malta’s former capital city of Mdina and the driver leaves the engine in first gear so it shudders and roars all the way. He stops steering and this buys him time to count all the notes in his cash register, leafing through them like a deck of cards. I wonder how he’s acquired so many when the maximum fare is only a few euros. The bus is still groaning and I lean forward instinctively to help with its plight.
The driver decides to steer again for a while and I am relieved, but only a little. I have noticed a five-litre can of what looks like petrol standing behind his seat, the liquid line slopping from side to side as the bus judders up the hill.
At last we arrive in Mdina, swerving into a space outside the City Gate. As I alight I find myself thanking the driver, perhaps out of habit and also relief at surviving the journey. He blinks at me, as surprised by my gratitude as I am.