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.