Driving round Malta, you might come across a van rather like this one, loaded with plastic bottles, washing bowls and billowing plastic sheeting. It’s not carrying flotsam and jetsam from a beach clean up. The ancient ’50s lorry and the petrol blue paint are clues enough that what you’re driving behind is the local petroleum hawker on his rounds.
He’ll be cruising along slowly, but as he’ll rarely have break lights, you’ll need to be prepared for his abrupt halts en route. Blasting his horn, he’ll be calling the faithful to bring out their odd assortment of plastic containers to be refilled. He’ll have an old metal measuring jug or he’ll just guestimate what size the customer’s container is. Paying will be a bit haphazard as, if my local petroleum man is anything to go by, he’ll be too old to have quite got the hang of that new-fangled Euro (even though currency conversion was 15 months ago now).
Petroleum hawkers, as you’ve guessed, are always old men. They are a dying breed. Let’s face it, who wants to be heaving Jerry cans or slopping kerosene over their Persian carpets these days.
But, hold on, that’s what I was doing until very recently. There are few household heating options when the winter chill sets in (and it’s been a very cold snap from January to March this year). I even invested in a deluxe, digitally-operated Japanese kerosene heater. It was bliss – the nearest thing to central heating I’ve come across in Malta. But, sadly, by year three, it gave up. Burning a dangerously yellow flame, automatically switching off and then gassing us, it was retired. I do wish I hadn’t sent my antiquated cylindrical heater to bulky waste after all.
For the years it worked, I would hare around the village, trying to find my petroleum man, Jerry cans in the boot of my car. It took days to track him down. Some winters, I was sure he’d died as I’d spent a week or more locating him. My car would reek of kerosene for weeks after that jaunt.
Even in year 2009, despite solar panels and underfloor heating, there’s still a demand for kerosene for heating, cooking and powering agricultural equipment. But, I am sure that the kerosene hawker will have had his day soon. The mobile libary, milkman, post office, baker and grocery store were part of my childhood in the UK, but they’ve died a death. Malta’s petroleum men will too. So, if you’re stuck behind one in a narrow street, do ponder the art of this dying breed of men who have served so many, so well, for so long.
Photo: Anne Muscat Scerri