The smelliest visitor I ever had was my Greek landlady. She didn’t just speak to me; she informed the whole house.
For a long time, she was only the landlord’s daughter. Then he died. In Greece, there’s a period of mourning. For forty days, you’re not allowed to wash. The more you smell, the sadder you appear, and people sympathise. In fact, they suffer with you.
She had always smelt a little, even when her father was alive. She came instead of him to get the money, bustling in and out, a practised rent collector.
She used to bring her son. Saturday was bath day, Mikey said. Nine-year-olds don’t smell. Every four baths, before the old man died, they'd pull their chairs up in front of me, knowing something good was going to happen. The magic of a pile of drachmas. She squeezed the boy, and cuddled him, as if he was a baby, after she got the cash. Some mothers don’t have sons; they have accomplices. I thought: How does he put up with the smell?
You can’t stop doing things when people die, and it’s not too hard, is it, holding out your hand for money? She came up just the same. The money had a keenness to it, like the grief, which she hadn’t known before. She didn’t just collect it now. She got to keep it, too.
On her first visit after her father’s death, she smelt bad enough. But rent day falls every month. She was still in mourning when she paid her next call. This time, of course, she smelt a lot worse. When the old man died, he wasn’t thinking about me.
On her second visit, she brought a lawyer, a tall man who nearly touched the ceiling. Now I had two visitors in black. She wanted to increase the rent, and brought him to intimidate me. The rent was very low, but the house wasn’t worth any more. I said it had gone up once that year. He looked at her sharply. Her plans weren’t going very well. I wasn’t giving in, and the lawyer was annoyed with her. Mother and son looked miserable. They had just lost someone. If they had to lose money, the same face would do.
I suddenly got tired of it, and said I was moving out. Mother and son turned to each other and grinned like lottery winners. Few things unite people more than satisfaction of a mutual greed. I think they imagined a queue of tenants, generous ones, desperate to rent their lousy hovel. Mikey had always looked thrilled to see me. He was thrilled sick to see me go. He’ll be the landlord one day. Perhaps he is already.
They didn’t know, but I was leaving for Italy. I wanted to keep the place. Rent it from afar. The dead man’s daughter cured me of that. I wrote to Jade and described the lawyer’s visit. She replied that my letter was so full of smells, she had to fumigate it.
Old Town, Salonica
Old Town, Salonica
If the sun was out, and it often was, Bryan liked to walk up the hill. The slope is quite tough, so you wander left and right, unless you’re in a hurry. When he made it to the top, he kept to the ancient wall, picking only paths and lanes. After I left, he still came up to the Old Town, but when he reached my house, he didn’t stop. He just checked it hadn’t fallen down, and if it looked inhabited, and went on walking. For a while, there was a tenant, and a mattress on the roof, which amused him. That was decades ago. It’s been empty ever since. A nice thought, really.