By Ben Kesp
On the morning of the 03rd of June I stroll to the local shop. Nothing unusual about the day, the painter is in his usual spot. Three weeks earlier he started painting the old house which had stood derelict at the corner before it was bought by a Canadian couple. He nods as I pass. The post lady is on her normal rounds, listening to her MP3 player oblivious to the world around her as the summer breeze rustles the papers along the narrow street. I enter and stroll to the back of the shop towards the milk counter. I see that the grumpy lady is serving. I never cared for her manner. Not a smile, a hello or a nod. She takes the carton of milk, scans it and tells me the price without a hint of emotion, almost robotic. As usual, I wait until she throws the change on the counter and turns about her own business. I scoop up the coins and leave the shop.
On returning to my apartment I notice that the most unusual thing happened. A letter was taped to the front door of my apartment. Not by the post woman as she would have used the letter box. The envelope has no address written on it, only my name in hand writing. I open it to find inside a folded piece of paper. I unfold it to see “DA 747 Valletta” hand written inside and nothing else. I am intrigued and even very confused. What could the note mean? Is it a post code in Valletta? Who has sent it to me? I study the hand writing and fail to recognise it.
I sit for some time staring at the note to see if I could decipher any more clues from it or its envelope. I really could not focus on anything else and need to get to the bottom of what the note means. This is most unusual. I have been living in Malta for the past year and only know a few people. Is it a prank? I think not. I stop pacing my apartment and grab the note. I decide I should go and see my landlord Victor. If anyone could advise me in some direction, it would be him.
Victor is a wise man as I like to call him. He knows of things most other people do not, and he has an interest in almost everything that happens around him. An inquisitive mind mixed with a curiosity for the unusual, he would marvel at the challenge of discovering what the strange code could mean. On arriving at Victor’s house, I find him in the garden. Not only is it a passion, his garden is also his sanctuary. Orchids, Hydrangeas, Begonias and a multitude of various roses are in full bloom and their sweet aroma filters around the garden as they shine spectacularly in the afternoon summer’s sun. He is sitting in the shade of an olive tree drinking a glass of cool ice tea admiring his assortment of plants and flowers around him.
We enjoy some ice tea in the heat of the afternoon sun while I tell him of my mysterious note. Victor muses for some time as he stares at his nearby roses dazzling in the summer light. He turns to me with a twinkle in his eye. He knows of a man who might be able to help. Frank Grech, manager of the National Statistics archive in Valletta. I could sense the excitement in Victor’s voice as he stands up. He does not want to delay any further. We are going to Valletta to meet with Frank.
Arriving at Castille Place, Victor and I meet with Frank Grech at the National Statistics Office. A low-sized friendly man with a bubbling personality. He is delighted with the break from his normal daily routine. I watch him as he sits behind his office desk studying the note in his hands. There is a large reference book of some kind next to him. He is meticulous for detail as I retell my story to him. While I wait, I browse around his office. Shelves cover the wall behind him and to his left. Books and folders squeezed in to fit. Some have not been touched in many years as the dust and cobwebs cling to their sides. The floor tiles are old and have lost their shine years ago. He grunts. I look up.
“This is a number to a deposit box,” he says as he looks towards me. “It is a very old listing if I remember correctly.” He flicks forward a few pages on the large book. “DA is the Latin for Depositum Archa, meaning box of deposit.”
“So where can I find the deposit box?” I reply eager to know more.
“Well, this is the other unusual thing,” he continues as he flicks to the rear of the book and scans some of the pages. “The numbers 747 stand as follows: 74 is the number of the box and Valletta is the location. The last number 7 is very interesting indeed as it refers to how many centuries earlier the last digit was referenced to the street number of the city. This system was only in operation in the city below us.”
Victor looks from Frank to me. I could feel the goose bumps on my arms and a shiver runs down my back. I listen intently as Victor explains to me of the underground city resting below Valletta. After the great siege in Malta against the Ottoman Empire, a new city was built and named Valletta after the Grand Master la Valette who had withstood the great siege. The new city was heavily fortified and completed by the end of the 16th century and its foundations covered the old city. I turn to Frank as he interrupts Victor informing me that the only entrances today are through the Grand Master’s Palace now the palace of the President of Malta, under St. John’s Cathedral, beneath the Archbishop’s Palace and by entering through a public building on Republic Street. Frank continues by stating that during World War II three war rooms were used by the Government within the old city. After the war, the city sections were closed off and only limited access was granted to the public to view certain areas once a year by a guided tour. It would be too costly to completely open the city to the public.
Frank and Victor fall silent and I lean back against my chair. I gather my thoughts. I have received a letter addressed to me with a number of a deposit box located in an underground city which has been abandoned since the 16th century. Or is it abandoned? Who still has access to its city vaults?
The following morning I arrive by the Arriva bus to the Valletta bus terminus. Not a cloud is in the sky and the brightly shining sun sparkles on the water spray of the Triton Fountain. The station is bustling with people all moving about in different directions. The taxis are waiting for passengers and the local hot food stalls are attracting the crowds. I arranged to meet with Rebecca, or Becca as she likes to be called, the previous evening. She would join me in the adventure to locate the deposit box and discover what it contains. Becca is a good friend of mine whom I met shortly after arriving in Malta. A busty girl with long brown hair curling at the ends and an ass that wriggles drawing the attention of anyone she walks past. She calls it her best asset. Becca has a love for the girls and known as somewhat of a diva. When I told her of my mysterious letter, she was up for the challenge of going underground to seek out the long forgotten vault. I smile to myself thinking how she would scream at the first sight of a cockroach; then again, I would not be too sane around one either.
I approach the entrance to Republic Street and walk towards Burger King. The construction of the new parliament building opposite has covered the street with dust and grime. Becca is standing waiting for me and gives a large wave. She joins me as we walk down the busy thoroughfare of Valletta. I am to meet with Frank Grech from the National Statistics Office at 10am and he is to escort me underground to where the city vault is located. I tremble slightly with excitement and my stomach twitches with nerves.
On meeting with Frank, he introduces us to Demetri Galzon, an intern with the Statistics Office who will be our guide for the morning. Demetri is in his mid twenties, tall, smartly dressed and has a friendly smile. Without delay Frank waves us off and Becca and I follow Demetri to the entrance of the underground city. We descend through a building on Republic Street that is used for public access on the annual opening. We enter through a double iron door leading into a narrow streetscape.