The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Smelly Nelly with the Plastic Belly

I knew a lady in Salonica, a hard-drinking, old Greek.  Smelly Nelly with the Plastic Belly.  She told people I called her that, but I didn’t.  I just called her Smelly. 

We had a favourite taverna, near the waterfront.  It was an easy walk when lessons at the cram school were over.  Not every night, but when we were out together, you would find us there.  We ate and drank.  Nelly mainly drank.  She poured retsina down her throat, and scorn on her native country.  Once, to show that I was listening, I echoed one of her least offensive comments, as you toss back a tiddler from the catch of giant fish which has just been landed.  She stopped as if I’d smacked her in the face, crushed her fist against her heart, and said that only Greeks could bad-mouth Greece. 

If she had enough retsina, she would cry.  She used to shake her head and say, “It’s not the drink.”  One evening, she brought a letter with her, from a friend whose mother had died of cancer.  She opened a couple of wrinkled sheets and read out part of it, the saddest part, I suppose.  Mother, at that point, was still alive.  The year was half over. 

“She said, ‘I don’t want to spoil Christmas.’”

Nelly stopped reading and began to cry.  “It’s not the drink.” 

When she wasn’t sentimental, she was cross.  Once, when Liddie came with us, I mentioned Mt Athos.  You know that women aren’t allowed to go, and that people laugh at what they aren’t allowed to do.  Nelly laughed at Mt Athos.  She resented the fact that men could go, and resented most of all the men who lived there. 

“Watch out for the monks!”

I had heard this line before.  Nelly raised her voice.  “Go to your Mountain Athos.  You do whatever it is.”

“Smelly,” I reproached her, quietly, but with a hint of mockery.  “Smelly.” 

Liddie’s head perked up.  I turned to her.

“A monk gave me a strawberry once.  He was standing in a field.  He picked it for me.”

“Exactly,” Nelly said.

I lifted my glass: “To Mountain Athos.”

We drank on.  Nelly was in form.  That morning, she had tried to use her Greek ID, but someone said the photograph was nothing like her.  She pulled out the insulted card and banged it on the table, like the exhibit that would trounce the prosecution.

On the card, under plastic, was a much younger woman.  It seemed to be a different person.  It was nothing like Nelly at all.

“It’s obviously me!”

“Of course it is!” said Liddie. 

The old Greek put the card away and went back to her glass.

                               A taverna near the waterfront, Salonica

Monday, 22 September 2014

An exceptional girl

Liddie was exceptional in at least three ways.  To begin with, she arrived in Salonica by herself.  There was no Lily on the plane beside her.  No Libby or Linda.

I normally liked the English girls who came out to Greece, but I didn’t like Liddie.  It was another thing which set her apart.  From the time we first met, I felt there was something wrong with her.  She wasn’t unattractive.  Perhaps I just mistrusted her before she gave me any reason to.

She was also a liar.  A much bigger one than usual.  Even if she told the truth, it wasn’t for the sake of being honest.  She would have a sly motive.  I’m being negative, I know.  When I said exceptional, you were probably thinking of all the talents which a girl might have.  Well, Liddie was an exceptional liar, and when I worked it out, I didn’t like her any better.

It took me a while to catch on to her experiments with the truth.  The first thing she talked about which I can remember was how men tried to get her into bed.  She had no patience with them. Don Juans in general.  I thought she meant it.  I thought she was warning me.  Why else would a girl talk like that?  I nearly said, You don’t have to worry about me, but it was too sarcastic.  She wouldn’t have understood, and I wouldn’t have wanted her to.  There was no need to tell the truth. 

The apartment which normally held two English girls now contained only one.  Her flatmate, Maya, was the Greek secretary at a branch of the cram school where we worked.  Maya had a boyfriend.  Liddie described him to me.  He was very muscular.  She finished her little piece with, “I don’t like muscly men.”   

I’m not someone you would call muscly, but it was a casual-sounding anecdote.  I didn’t respond.  I just let her words lie at the back of my brain.

In the end, she got sick of waiting for me to do something.  She asked me over to her flat.  Maya had gone out with her boyfriend.  Liddie complained about her as soon as I walked in.  The Greek girl occupied the bathroom for hours every day, putting on her make-up.  Liddie only wore mascara.  She took me into the bathroom and showed me Maya’s stash of colours, creams and powders.  It was fantastic.  We could have touched all these pretty things.  Maya would never have found out.  But there was no point.  We wouldn’t have known what to do. 

Candles had been placed around the sitting room.  It was like a scene from The Bold and the Beautiful.  They looked new.  The wicks were white.  It didn’t feel like Maya’s work.  Liddie carefully lit each one.  We ate something and had some wine.  The conversation grew more personal.  She asked about my family.  I said my parents were dead. 

She told me she was inhibited.  I hadn’t asked.  She even gave an example.  When she was seventeen, she had a crush on one of her teachers. 

“He liked me, too, but if he’d done something, I would have run a mile.”  

The candles flickered.  They could have.  You can’t say they didn’t.

“He just said, ‘Liddie, what you need is a good fuck.’”

“I hope you followed his advice.”

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Death in Salonica

“Πολύ κρύο,” I said to my neighbours.  Very cold.  I hadn’t been there long.  

One day it was -5.  I saw Jade at the university and called out to her.  I must have looked as if I had some news, and she was keen to show that she was bored already.

“I know, I know, your washing froze.”

She informed me that, in England, washing didn’t freeze because it wasn't put out in the open in the first place.

Πολύ κρύο.  It was snowing.  There was no glass in the window of my outside toilet, which doubled as a bathroom.  Snowflakes hit me when I had a shower.  The girls laughed when I told them. 

It was so cold my pipes froze.  I told them that, too, then clutched my chest, and said the same thing again, with alarm, “My pipes are frozen!” 

They laughed again.  Jade informed me that, in England, pipes didn’t freeze because they weren’t put out in the open in the first place.

I saw Adonis on the street and said, “Πολύ κρύο!”  It was all the Greek I knew.  His wife was beating blankets to get them clean.  A short time later, he came across to my window, holding a coat.  His son had just died.  Someone else told me.  Greek men do military service, usually in their late teens.  A year or two on the Turkish border.  Sometimes they don’t come back.  Adonis was holding the boy’s coat.  He didn’t tell me.  He didn’t have to.  It’s just sitting in the cupboard.  Why don’t we give it to him?  Now and then they would still see the boy, at the top of the road, walking through the arch, or stepping onto a bus.  He’s a young lad.  I took the coat, but I never wore it.

                Byzantine wall, Salonica

An English girl came to cut my hair.  She only came once, so I probably won’t mention her again.  She said she was a hairdresser.  She put a cloth over my shoulders and started cutting.  I had left the windows open.  It was warmer now.  Adonis appeared.  He laughed when he saw me with the cloth around my neck, and the girl behind me, poking at my hair.  He leant his forearms on the sill and settled down to watch.  He said things I didn’t understand, or don’t remember.  Other men stopped to see what was happening.  They made jokes about me with Adonis.  

Jade shrieked when she saw my hair.  She had gone to Olympia with Joy.  I arrived later, stood on the road outside the hotel, and called out their names.  I can still see the laughter on Jade’s face when her head came out of the window, and she spotted me.  

We walked up to the ancient site.  If you stand in front of the temple and look down to the ocean, the whole plain is deep green, almost black, with olive trees.  There are no other spaces, no different shades, between you and the sea.  I said it looked like a dark cloth spread out among the hills, or something.  Silence.  It was a bit pretentious.  

When the girls said nothing, I thought my simile had winged it, but it didn’t get far.  On the bus next day, to pass the time, they mocked the poor thing, repeating it with pitiless variation.  There were other passengers.  One of them was smiling.   The girls had always teased me, and it had always been cruel, but with an audience it was thrilling.  I let them run on.  When it was enough, I said, “If you knew how close I was to tears, you wouldn’t continue.”

In Salonica, that first winter, it really was very cold.  Adonis thought I was suffering, but I wasn’t.  He was.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Party animals

A young man was filmed recently in Welwyn Garden City (handsome name) swinging a Chihuahua around his head on the end of a lead.  Yippee!

Britons have mistreated animals for hundreds of years.  The last time the river Thames froze, the BBC tells us, “oxen were roasted in front of roaring fires, drink was liberally taken and dances were held. An elephant was marched across the river alongside Blackfriars Bridge.”  All on the ice.  They wanted to prove how thick it was.  It was extremely thick.

‘Health and safety’ is our mantra now, but we still put animals at risk for the sake of entertainment.  Parties billed as “wild nights out” have been held in London Zoo.  Drunken guests have “crushed butterflies, touched penguins and poured drinks on animals.”  When challenged about his interference with a rare white baboon, one young man replied, “I thought it was my girlfriend.”

Like us, animals can be dangerous.  A car with a family inside caught fire at a safari park.  They had the choice to leave the vehicle and be eaten by lions, or stay there and be burnt to death.  A witness said the lions “didn’t take their eyes off the car for a second.”  Implication: the family with big teeth wanted to eat the family with small teeth.  However, if you put two households side by side, one will often have bigger teeth than the other.  The family in the car might not have looked as scary as the one in the grass, but you never know what’s going on inside a person’s head.

“I give them thirty seconds,” said Daddy Lion.
“No,” said Mummy Lion. “They’ll last longer.  Are you hungry?”

Baby Lion asked, “Why don’t they get out of the car, Mummy?”

If you always think badly of a certain animal or person, it’s easy to mistreat them.  The vegetable kingdom is also mightily abused.  A man has pushed a Brussel sprout to the top of Mt Snowden.  He said he “selected a large sprout so it would not fall down a crevice in the rock.”  The safety of the sprout was the most important thing.  Remember now.  The crevices on Mt Snowden are all narrower than a large sprout.  No need to push a pumpkin up there, or a tree.

Pity the sprout, and the dung beetle.  It heaves a ball of dung that’s bigger than itself.  In London, office managers do much the same thing – push lumps of shit around all day.  However, we are now told that dung beetles get extra-terrestrial help.  Research has shown that they are guided by the starsScientists “put little cardboard hats on the beetles’ heads, blocking their view of the sky.  Those beetles just rolled around and around aimlessly.”  Sounds like my graduation party.

I wasn’t fair on Brussels Man, either.  I didn’t tell you that he pushed the sprout up Mt Snowden with his nose.  He was worse off than a beetle.  They use their legs.  I’m beginning to side with humans again. Let’s get this ball of dung back on the road.

At the safari park, the car was still burning.

“Maybe they don’t know it’s on fire,” Baby Lion suggested.  “We should tell them.”

Mummy Lion shook her head.  “No, darling.  It’s not safe.  We don’t like fire any more than people do.”

Baby Lion looked at her intelligently.  Mummy Lion went on, “We’ll just wait here until they get out of the car.  Then we’ll eat them.”