The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Graham and Cinzia

One day, Cinzia came to see me.  She was by herself.  I didn’t mind, I mean whether she came or not.  It was her revenge on Graeme, the husband who stopped loving her and went with other women.
“I’ll show him!”
The exact words she used, in her head, I’m sure they were, before she came to see me.
In Salonica, the 23 bus starts near the waterfront, runs quickly over the flat ground, then winds up the hill.  It’s usually over-loaded.  The way up to the Old Town is nice and steep.  To anyone who’s travelling, the bus feels heavy on the road, as if it doesn’t want to go.  It’s one of my favourite buses.
You take a bus for a reason.  There’s something you have to do.  When the 23 that was carrying Cinzia got to the arch at the top of the hill, it reversed and turned right, as it always does.  It’s just too big to get through.  Cinzia got off, walked underneath the arch, as you had to if you were coming to my house, and tapped on the door.  She didn’t tell me she was coming.  She probably didn’t know until she came.
The first thing she did, before we sat down, was wrap her arms around me, and hug me very tightly, face to face.  Then she lifted me.  My feet were off the floor.  After that, I don’t remember much.  Did we even sit down?  I don’t know.  I didn’t black out.  Maybe not much happened.  She held me in the air, like a bunch of pillows, although you don’t squeeze pillows so hard, so close to you.  She said things, too.
“People might think it’s strange, me being here alone with you.”
I don’t know if Graeme was people.  We hadn’t touched before.  It was straight to the embrace.
“Why are you so skinny?”
She put some stress on skin.  Was she lifting other men, frequenting the Old Town, hugging around?
She held me near the fridge.  It was second-hand.  Things, like people, got passed around.  I bought it from an English girl when she was leaving, squat and yellowish – the fridge, not the girl.  I don’t know if it was made that way, or went yellow over time, like paper.  The trademark Spring was stamped on the front; something built to stop things getting warm, something so decrepit.  It sat there humming coldly.  Sometimes it snored.
She was showing him.
“I hated you when I first met you!”
Still saying things, too.  I almost fired back, “I really liked you.”  But there was no point in being cruel.  She wouldn’t have understood, and she was still holding me. 
People noticed Cinzia.  She was in her twenties, fair-haired, light-skinned.  Her arms and legs turned caramel in the Greek sun.  A deeper layer every time you saw her.  She was boyish, in spirit as well as build.  She reminded me of a classmate in Year 7, a boy I knew for a long time, but who looked like her most when he was twelve.
She put me down before she left.  As she was going, she hesitated.  Her hand was on the door.
“I don’t know where Graeme is.”
She didn’t wait for an answer.  There wasn’t any.  I felt sorry for her now, now that she was leaving.  I didn’t see her again.
She’d shown him, wherever he was.
I saw Graeme in Singapore, months later, in the airport transit lounge.  We were changing planes.  We were there an hour or two.  You can live in the same house and not see someone. 

Cinzia re-married.  She had Graeme’s books.  He wanted them.  She and the new man were keen he didn’t get them. 

Still showing him. 
She had lifted me as you lift a child, too easily.  The fridge was snoring.  I could have slept with her.   

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Graeme and Cinzia

For the expat in Salonica, there were more eating places than sexual partners.  If you left out the ones that were too noisy, were full of smoke, or stank of retsina, there weren’t so many places, but there weren’t so many partners, either.

When it came to swapping soul mates, Graeme with an e was pretty quick, like the rest of us, though he wasn’t so quick at everything.  I said I might go and work in Pakistan.  His face brightened.  Looking back, he probably just wanted to get rid of me, but at the time I said pleasantly, “You could do it too.”

“No, I couldn’t.”

“Yes, you could.”

“I’m telling you I couldn’t.”

I didn’t know him well enough then.  He was certainly edgy.  I thought he missed his wife, who was still in Australia.  He told me she was coming over soon.  I tried another genial comment, one that couldn’t fail. 

“That’s good news.”

“Is it?”

His wife’s name was Cinzia, pronounced chintzier, with an ee if you’re Italian, although she wasn’t.  We had a meal when she arrived.  She told me how they met.  She was studying.

“He was the coolest tutor at uni.” 

Then she giggled knowingly at Graeme.

“You had a ponytail!”

It was a loving giggle, too.  I pictured the ponytail.  Graeme turned his face away, like an aside in a play, and twisted it.  It was the last time I saw them together.

Someone organised a day trip to Lit√≥choron, the village at the bottom of Mt Olympus.   Climbers go there before they set off for the peak.  We weren’t doing that today, just having a nice walk on the paths around the village.  

I kept sniggering.

“I wish you wouldn’t laugh like that,” someone said.

“I'm laughing at Cinzia.”

“I know.”

“Did you see her earrings?” someone asked. 

“They’re not earrings,” I replied. “They’re portable televisions.”

Graeme hadn’t come.  For the wife, it was another pointless trip, a mountain that she wasn’t going to climb. 

I thought I'd drop in and see him.  I didn't quite make it.  There was a caf√© between the bus stop and his flat, and I saw him with a girl who wasn’t Cinzia.  They were sitting at an outside table, not a good place if you'd rather not be seen.  Perhaps he didn’t care, or had nothing to hide.  Still, in the half second before he saw me, I felt that something needed to be hidden.  I wasn’t sure what.  They were earnest, not overly romantic, but his body had more meaning than when Cinzia was around.  The moment he noticed me, whatever it was fell away.  He wasn’t expecting visitors.  Not Graham with an h, anyway.  I could tell from his face.

The three of us had a conversation, a sad, disturbing conversation.  At times like this, you pick something neutral to talk about, like cats or travel.  You can’t go wrong there.  I mentioned my trip to Vergina, where they found Philip of Macedon’s tomb, but I pronounced it the wrong way.  The woman laughed.  “I like that – excavating vagina.”

When no one else laughed, she apologised.  Silence.  Her face brightened again.  She turned to Graeme the way I used to do, with encouragement: “You said you were going to Pakistan.”

Friday, 14 November 2014

Graeme with an e

I need to clear up one thing straightaway.  On this page, I make a lot of references to a person called Graeme.  I am not talking about myself.  It wouldn’t be much of a trick, would it?  I couldn’t fool all of you. 

Graeme with an e was someone I knew in Greece.  He was actually a lot like me.  For a start, he was annoying.  He thought he was clever, and didn’t miss an opportunity to prove it.  He shot laconic sentences at people as if he was trying to trip them up.  When I told him I was teaching English, he said, “You can explain the past aorist.” 

His questions were even more exacting.  Our conversation turned to underpants.  I don’t remember why.  It was a long time ago.  There may have been an incident concerning trousers.  I may have said something like, “Just as well you had your underpants on,” or, “At least you were wearing underpants!”  Something reassuring that took the use of underpants for granted.

 “Do you wear underpants?” he retorted, with more heat than usual when you’re discussing underwear; a tone that might have worked for punching babies or eating mice.  And when he said it, he jerked his face towards me in a devastating way.

I didn’t answer his question.  I didn’t want to make things worse.  

Graeme, thank God, was not like me in everything.  He cut his nostril hair.  I plucked it – mine, that is – and I did so in private, ever since the bus ride when someone said, “Ugh, don’t pick your nose like that!”  Graeme trimmed his nostrils while I was sitting next to him.  Just the one time. One time was enough.  He waited till my head was turned away, I give him that, but I still saw it.  I can see it now, like a video that keeps playing.  He raised a pair of scissors, the kind you cut your nails with, snipped quickly, and then withdrew, concealing the guilty hand behind his thigh.  I could have missed it, but I didn’t.  One snip per nostril.  That’s all it took, apparently.  For some reason, he couldn’t wait till I had gone.  Did he really think I wouldn’t notice?  Perhaps he didn’t really care.  Screw you.  My nostrils need trimming.

Unlike me, Graeme didn’t worry about dirt.  He’d asked me around for a meal.  In the vegetable stew, there were several chunks of earth, each about as big as a one drachma coin.  Small as coins go, but not for the dirt which you're expected to eat.  It was good Greek soil, carved out of a desiccated field.  He must have seen it, stuck to pieces of potato, or bulging on the stalk of a whole champignon; lumps of earth so hard they hadn’t fallen apart in the cooking pot, unless he tossed them in at the very end, like a pinch of herbs, to perfect the recipe. 

I wash vegetables before I cook them.  I fuss around the cold tap.  I even hold mushrooms under running water, when people I respect just wipe them with a cloth, like dusting ornaments.  I tell myself that a plant which resembles an open umbrella has evolved well enough to deal with water.

But I didn’t mention the dirt to Graeme.  It was like the nostril hair.  He didn’t really care.  I just ate it.  The soil, I mean.  I couldn’t leave it on the plate.  He would have seen it.  He would have fired another question at me with his hostile face.

“Do you wash potatoes?”

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Bad girls

“You’ve got some strange sexual habits.”

The deputy-head spoke placidly, but I was still scared.  I must have had a guilty conscience.  When he saw my face, he apologised.  He’d just been in the girls’ toilets, I don’t remember why, and seen the graffiti.  He didn’t repeat what it was, probably something like Spaid sucks cocks.  Revenge, at least, is sweet.

That was in Australia.  Most of my blunders have a London twang.  I was monitoring some Year 10s.  I complimented a pair of girls on their behaviour.

“I like good girls.”  Pause.  “I like bad girls, too.”

It magnetised their foreheads for a second.

To take things out of the classroom – there are bad girls in the workplace as well – I’ll tell you a story about a barber I used to have.  A girl washed the customers’ hair first.  The barber never did that.

She was about sixteen.  Her arms were bare to just below the shoulder.  You don’t want sleeves getting wet.  Her T-shirt was tight, very tight, an extension, really, of her normal skin.  You don’t want clothes dangling in a client’s face. 

The girl wet my hair.  She was close enough for me to feel her body heat.  When the time came to add shampoo, she pressed herself against my shoulder.     

The barber never did that.  He was a buoyant sort.  His snipping hand had a life of its own.  No need to rest an arm on someone's head if he was tired. 

The girl was not so lucky.  To work the soap in fully, she had to prop her forearms on my brow.  Pretty arms, neatly curved.  What they felt like on my face, it’s difficult to say.  I remember wondering if my eyebrow tickled her, the skin near her pulse.   

One day, she just got tired of it.  Instead of massaging, her fingers started pulling at my hair, sharp, little tugs that hair washers don’t usually do.  It felt like revenge.  I had never spoken to her.  I didn’t know what to say. 

Girls are good at revenge.  In school, I gave a bad girl lines to write.  Two sides.  Something like I am very sorry for behaving badly. When the sheet came back, by the bottom of page two, the message had become I am not sorry, I am not sorry, I am not sorry.  It was hard not to smile.

I was sitting at the teacher’s desk.  I looked around.  A girl had drawn an arrow on the board behind me, like a diagram in Science.  The tip was pointing down at me.  The other end was labelled smelly.

The best insult, though, comes from the twelve-year-old who called out in class: “You’ve got a dick this big!”  She held up a thumb and forefinger as if she was going to pinch the air.  There wasn’t much space between them.

Insults and revenge are fine, but they don’t explain why some girls stay behind at the end of a lesson when you haven't asked them to. 

“Will you have sex with me, sir?”

A Year 9.  She had waited till everyone was gone.

“We could have so much fun.”

She emphasised the word so.  When I didn’t answer, or look at her, she went on:

“I’m undoing my belt.”  Pause.  “I’m taking my jeans off now.”

I still didn’t look.  I went to lunch instead.  I didn’t think she meant it.