The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

You’re the clever one

You could fill a Greek taxi – those little, yellow ones – with the girls I met in Salonica, then bumped into on the Acropolis.  You could do it, but you wouldn’t want to.  Too many girls in too confined a space.

Gelda was Dutch.  Jade said she couldn’t stop talking about me.  We met in Salonica, then – you guessed it – bumped into each other on the Acropolis.  In case you didn’t know, that’s the large rock in Athens with a temple on it.  It can be romantic, but I had to attract someone sooner or later.  Gelda’s enthusiasm intrigued the others, the English girls, I mean, the ones who weren’t infatuated with me.  At that precise moment, Jade and Joy.    

We moved on from Gelda, and talked about the Parthenon.

“It’s one of my five favourite buildings,” I said.  For the girls, this was something new.  I was being serious.

“What are the others?” Jade asked. 

“King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the Duomo in Florence, and the Taj Mahal.”

Jade fell silent.  She didn’t have to tell me, but she hadn’t been to most of those places.  What about the buildings I didn’t choose, the other piles of human genius which I’d looked at, mulled over, and then discarded?   She hadn’t been to most of those, either.

It was a deep conversation.  Deep and satisfying.  It proved that I could bother Jade without even trying.  It depressed Joy as well, about the Parthenon.

“I can’t see what’s so good about it,” she lamented.  “I must be missing something.”

“Yes,” I said.

“It’s just a matter of taste,” said Jade.

“Good taste and bad taste,” I observed.  Then I turned to Joy:  “You’re supposed to be the clever one.”

“I resent that!” she barked.

“I’m just comparing you to Jade.  You were nice to me when we first met.  Jade ignored me.”

Depressed joy.  That’s an oxymoron. 

I answered an advert for a private tutor.  It was a Greek woman who wanted some English conversation.   She asked me to talk about Graham Greene, an author I had never read.  Her apartment was in the city centre.  I was on my way to our first lesson (there was only one) when I saw the two girls.  As soon as Jade heard where I was going, she said: “Is your shave good enough for her?”

Jade was annoying, but she had noticed my appearance.  I thought about it for a second.  Perhaps she noticed other things as well. 

Her question, of course, had been purely insulting.  Like the Acropolis, which we all stand on once in our lives, Jade was a romantic stone.

We were learning Greek at the university.  One day, I saw Gelda and didn’t say hallo.  She looked hurt.  I had talked to her before, at least twice, in two different cities.  She must have wondered what the problem was now.  I thought about it for a second.  She wasn’t ugly. When she spoke English, something cute happened, which only foreign girls can do.  Her accent was so slight you nearly missed it.  If you didn’t know that she was Dutch, and could speak perfect English before the age of nine, you’d think she had a cold.  I decided to be nice. 

A few days later, I saw her again.  She was walking up the stairs in front of me.  Unfortunately, Jade and Joy were there.  They were due a laugh. 

“Do you want to have dinner?” I asked.  I just meant Gelda, cute with English words.

No,” she replied, and hurried on.  

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Just like Jade

I went to Mt Pelion with Jade and Joy.  We stayed a couple of nights in Makrinitsa in a triple room.  The first morning, while Jade was in the shower, I said to Joy, “How’s my favourite English girl today?”

“I don’t know,” she replied.  “I haven’t spoken to Jade yet.”

We went down for breakfast.  There was an old, English lady in the dining room. 

“It’s going to rain,” I said.

“Oh, don’t be so pessimistic!” she retorted.

“I was just looking at the clouds.”

The old lady had come to find a beetle, the Dogbane Leaf, which doesn’t live in Britain.  It has a shiny, rainbow-coloured shell.

“They only feed on certain plants, so I look for those first.” 

“Like the tribesmen in the Serengeti," I said.  "They can tell from a pile of dung which animal has passed, and when.” 

“How big is beetle dung?” complained Joy.  I looked at her and said: “They can even tell how much something weighs.” 

The old lady had been to Mt Pelion before.  One day, she found a nice beetle, placed it in her jar, and screwed the lid on.

“It was raining.  I was on a steep slope, trying to–”  

“You slipped and dropped the jar, which rolled down the slope and disappeared.”

Pause. 

“Well done, Graham,” said Joy.  “You just spoiled her story.”

Joy had used my name.  Joy was getting cross.  Her enthusiasm for the old girl irritated me.  It was also beginning to rain.  As if I’d just recalled a relevant fact, I asked our new friend: “Have those beetles got horns?”

“The Dogbane Leaf?  No.”

“I trod on something last night.”

“Did it have horns?” inquired Miss Marple.

I nodded.

“It might have been a stag beetle,” she said.  “They’re endangered.”

“Don’t listen to him,” said Joy.  “He didn’t tread on anything.”  Then, glaring at me, “You know very well what a stag beetle looks like.”

The TV was on.  No sound, just images flicking on the screen.  It was a travel documentary.  Each place looked very quiet and very far away.  The houseboats on Dal Lake appeared.  

“I’ve been there!” I cried.  It was true.  I had photographed the same view – the path to the centre of the lake, the trees spaced along it, too light for real trees, attached to a line of shade across the water, hardly a real path, and mountains rising up behind. 

Joy said nothing, but I could tell from her sullen face that she believed me.  

Exquisite beauty.  The lake, I mean.  The old lady said the water looked cold; it was cold in Turkey, too.  She had gone with her late husband.  

“We nearly froze.”

I nodded sympathetically: “I read an article the other day about penile frostbite.”

“You did not!” protested Joy.

“I’ve been to Istanbul,” I said.  “On the coach, overnight.  I was late for the coach back and had to run.  It was really dark.  A workman was laying cement on the footpath, but I didn't see him.  He’d just finished a whole strip–”

“You ran right along it!” Joy laughed.

Who lays cement in the dark?  When I sat down on the coach, I saw the grey mess on my shoes and trousers.  I saw the workman, too, in my head, standing up and calling after me.  I just kept running.

Jade was not so fond of Miss Marple.  You could feel it.  She was being quiet, but you know Jade.  She couldn't stay quiet for long.  Joy asked the old girl if her bug was endangered, the rainbow-coloured one.  It was common in North America, she replied, but not in Europe.

“Keep an eye out for it.  The larva has a brown head and white body.”

“Just like Jade,” I said. 

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Candy the witch

“Candy the witch!  That’s what he said.  Candy the witch!”  Nellie banged her glass down and sat back, gloating. 

“I did not,” I said, coolly.

“Yes, you did!”

“I didn’t.”

“I bet you did,” said Candy, reproachfully. 

“Yes, I did.”  

Candy and Cassie stared, their mouths open, then they burst out laughing.  Candy wore black.  I added the hat and broom, that’s all, and passed it on to Nellie.   The old girl was glowing.  She liked telling tales and she took her triumphs seriously. 

Drinks at Nellie’s place, the one time I remember, the night of the witch, the night of Cassie’s hand.  I was on the sofa next to her.  Nellie and Candy sat opposite.  Cassie asked me to pass her something, and held out a hand.  Nellie shifted from her seat, which distracted Candy.  Instead of the plate or biscuit that Cassie was expecting, I put my fingers on her palm and stroked it gently. 

It was a young woman’s hand, in the English fashion, whiter than most, less silky than it could have been, but not rough, either.  There was a tautness in the skin, which kept my fingers moving.  She didn’t take her hand away, not until I stopped, and, then, not immediately. 

There’s something I haven’t told you.  Candy had a crush on me.  It lasted several weeks.  By the night of the witch, it was already half over.  You know, almost always, when someone latches on to you, however slightly.  It was something I noticed, then motored quietly by, as you come across an accident on the road, and see it’s not so bad, you don’t need to stay. 

How much emotion is there?  Touching me and Cassie, not a lot, perhaps not any.  We did it because we could, improvised a stroking, but it wasn’t meant to hurt the other girl.  Candy didn’t see, and we didn’t want her to.  But it was cruel.  Cassie must have known about the crush.  We laughed at Candy, like conspirators, with imaginary laughter, at imaginary pain.  If a hand needed stroking, it was Candy’s.

We were taking our revenge, I suppose.  Mine, for the cross words – there had been a few from Candy – and also for the crush, that insipid thing.  You can punish someone, can’t you, for not loving you enough?  It was Cassie’s revenge, too.  I was on her side at last, or someone was, for all the times that she had lost to Candy.  They weren't really friends.  I remember thinking, Cassie’s winning now.

She wasn’t winning in the classroom, though.  She wasn’t cut out for it.  She said so herself.  Cassie had a group of nine-year-olds.  

“Then there’s little √Āngelos.  He lies on the floor all lesson.  Someone asks a question.  Teacher blushes.”

The girls flew to England for Christmas, and I went to the airport with them.  Just before they left, Cassie reached across and kissed me on the cheek, the way a child does.  Then she stepped back, her face burning.  Teacher blushes everywhere.  Candy was annoyed.  An airport worker grinned.  There’s always an emotion.

They both came back to finish their year at school, but I was bored with them now and must have shown it.  There were no more kisses, no more accidents.  They even stopped laughing.  A friend of Candy’s came over.  I saw her looking at me disapprovingly, with a certain knowledge, and I knew what Candy had been saying.  Candy the witch.   

When they left at the end, I kept in touch with Candy.  We met up once in Pisa.  She was still teaching.  She showed me an old building, somewhere like the British School.  The man at reception knew her.  He asked, in English, if we were there together. 

“Yes,” I said, “unfortunately.”

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

You might learn something

When Candy arrived in Salonica, she defended everyone I criticised.  When I said the school secretary was bovine, her face showed me who she thought was stupid.  When I grumbled about the director and his holiday during term (two weeks at a Red Sea resort), she told me in her classroom voice that I should talk to him when he got back. 

“You might learn something!”

This sentence, and the tone it came in, is still sunning itself inside my head.  Whenever he spoke to the two girls, Candy and Cassie, the director was very kind, paternal even, like pampering a pair of daughters, but daughters have to do what they are told.  They worked it out later.  They worked out the secretary, too.

Cassie was always sweet to me.  If Candy got annoyed, at least we kept talking.  The young man staying with them was not so lucky.  They’d all been on the same teaching course.  During practice sessions, while one student was teaching, the others stood in the corridor, observing through a pane of glass.  The young man had not looked comfortable, Candy said.  Imagine life like that, a kind of sealed room, with a girl at the window, watching all the wrong things you do.  I pictured Candy on her own teaching practice, not needing any practice at all.

Everybody passed, of course.  The two girls came to Greece, and the freeloader asked himself along.  That’s how Candy put it.  He hadn't found a job. 

“I bet he was expecting to sleep with one of us.” 

A fair assumption for a young man to make. 

“Wait till you see his trousers.”

Fair apparel for a young man to wear.

Candy smiled sarcastically and told me his pet phrase: It was really wacky.

All this poison before we’d even met.  She asked me around for dinner, introduced us, and didn’t speak to him again.  In lots of ways, he was an ordinary young man.  But she was right about the trousers, black, leather things that squeaked when he walked, they were so stiff and new.  The sort of trousers which impress a girl.  Awkward for the moment, though.  Each step was like wading through crude oil.  He could have used some for the squeak.

She was right about the pet sentence, too.  He (I don’t remember his name) spoke for a while when I first came in.  There’d been a funny incident on his way from England.  I can’t remember what that was, either.  When he got to the end of his story, he said, with a chuckle, not expecting silence, “It was really wacky.” 

There was a funny incident during dinner, too.  Only one.  I discovered bendy straws.  The girls put them in our glasses.  At one point, when the house guest had fled into the bathroom, I held my straw up between a thumb and forefinger, examined it, and said, “It’s really…kinky.”

The girls laughed.  A loud flush of giggles.  The pause, then kinky, were meant to make them laugh. Till then, it was just the one chuckle, and afterwards no one laughed at all.  Dinner was like a funeral; or worse, a funeral where the mourners don’t get on.  I wonder how that laughter sounded to the young man skulking in the toilet.

There are girls you don’t get to sleep with.  Later, when they both left the room, and couldn’t hear – it was treachery, after all – I said something to him.  Again, I don’t remember.  It was saying things that mattered.  He hadn’t been spoken to for a while.  He swung his head around as if I’d tugged it with a cord, and peered at me, so grateful it looked pathetic.  It shows you what a few words can do, a few, trite words that aren’t remembered.