The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Sunday, 31 May 2015

A bad smell

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
                
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.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

The devil on the door

You can apologise in Salonica for being rude in Athens.  Jade did, anyway. 

“I’m very sorry we didn’t invite you back to the hotel.”  

I like the word we.  The girl I saw her with in Athens was a friend, a girl of equal froth, someone who had come out from England to see her.  Jade could be cruel wherever she was, but things are always simpler when you’re with a friend.  

Back in drab Salonica, it was just Jade and Joy.  In terms of English girls who came to Greece and flirted with a man called Spaid, they were the first.  I mentioned them to Candy and Cassie, the next pair of girls, after they had gone.  Cassie said, “Who the hell are Jade and Joy?”

It’s a very good question.  The names sit nicely on the tongue, and one syllable is easier than two, but Jade and Joy were not a perfect match.  For a start, they weren’t friends in England.  They’d just been paired together, I’m not sure how, to ‘teach’ English at the university in exchange for Greek lessons.  Jade was an aristocrat, and Joy wasn’t.  I think they annoyed each other.  Maybe that’s why they put up with me.  I annoyed them even more.  

One day, at the university, the three of us were waiting for a Greek class.  Joy said, “There’s one of my students!”

She could be enthusiastic.  I used to beat her down, but here was a different young man.   She said hallo, with a blend of real interest and warmth, like a friend, not a teacher.  He walked straight past her as if she wasn’t there.  No one spoke.  I didn’t even laugh.  Sometimes, just being there is enough.

Jade and Joy lived at the estia, a multi-storey, modern dormitory inside the campus.  Their rooms were like hollow tins that echoed if you tapped them.  I went there a few times.  The first time, they invited me.  They took me down to see the toilets.  There was a row of wooden doors, one of which had devil penned across it in thick, English letters.  Jade, or Joy, gave me a camera and showed me how it worked.  Then they got into the cubicle and shut the door.  In the photograph I have, two heads are poking up above the door marked devil, looking very young, and slightly mad.  I hope I have the photograph.  I’m not sure where it is now. 

The last time I went to see them, I dropped in.  It was a mistake.  Jade came out with her Walkman on, pressing the earphones to her head, and danced around with her elbows in the air.  Joy was behind her, and together they drove me back to the foyer. 

“Do you like George Michael?”  Jade danced past, not waiting for an answer.  She suddenly stopped and looked at me.  “What happened to your hair?  You’re always careful with it.”  Then she lurched off again.  “I like men with fair hair.  Jonathon has fair hair.” 

I don’t remember what Joy said.  She was never as cruel as Jade, but now they were a team.  They punished me for just being there. 

“Are you gay?” asked Jade.  “You can tell me,” she added when I didn’t reply.  I wasn’t pinned in the stocks.  I lasted a few minutes. 

You can apologise in the Old Town for being rude at the estia.  After I left, they came up to see me.  I wasn’t in, so they left a note.  I threw it away.  I wish I had it now.

We are very, very sorry for being so awful to you.  Of all the people who are awful to you, we are the sorriest.  Please forgive us.  Tragically yours, Jade and Joy.

Friday, 15 May 2015

All in the framework

I was down in Athens again.  I knew Jade was there with a girl from England.  They were bound to visit the Parthenon.  In front of the ancient temple, I picked a nice stone – the Acropolis is not short of these – and sat down to wait for them.  It was mid-afternoon.  The Greek sun was blinding.  There’s no other word for it.  I don’t know how long I would have waited.  In less than five minutes, they came along.  You don’t believe it, but it’s true.

It was all in the framework.  I haven’t told you about my framework, have I?  I arranged things, events and conversations, to end how I wanted.  At least, that’s what I told Jade and Joy, to annoy them.  It’s all in the framework, I'd say.  It infuriated Jade in particular.

The path she was on led to my stone.  I’d seen her first.  It was too late for her to turn away.  She just kept walking.  She didn’t react immediately.  Greece had always bothered Jade – the boys, the men, the sun – and, almost always, she was cautious.  She was cautious now.  The girl knew her boyfriend back in England.  Perhaps Jade just didn’t want to see me.  Whatever the reason for it, her reserve didn’t last very long.

 She stopped walking a few steps in front of me.  

“What a lovely coincidence,” she said.

“Not really.  I’ve only been here an hour, and I’ve already seen two people I know.”

“I think you’ve been sitting there too long,” she said, glancing down.  “Your trousers look so tight they’re going to split.”

“One girl had a bum like a cauliflower.”

The friend pricked up her ears.  From a distance, before they saw me, they had both looked bored.  Maybe it was the heat.  Maybe they were tired of each other.  Jade was good at ennui, especially during trips, when she moved like a duchess on the Grand Tour. 

“It’s in the framework, I suppose.”  She turned to her friend: “He has a framework.  Everything that happens is what he intended.  It’s all in his stupid framework.”

I don’t remember the friend’s name.  She made a schoolgirl pun on feta’d cheese.  She wasn’t as thin as Jade.  They both had big hats, and their arms and legs were pink from the sun.  That’s all I can tell you now.

Shall I make it up?  The wrong words can spoil a simple thing.  A rock, and three figures picked out by the sun.  Behind the Parthenon, to the left as I was facing, stood Lycabettus hill, a grey cone with a skirt of trees.  It’s a good place to view the Acropolis.  It’s sacred, too.  There’s a path around the middle, or that’s what I remember, a streak at that distance, like a thin, white smile. 

When you look back and see where you’ve walked, a path can be sardonic.  You know it won’t remember you.  I had climbed Lycabettus.  People tell you: Don’t stop at the cafĂ©, it’s too expensive.  But there’s nowhere else to go.

The first time in history, and probably the last, all three were in a row,  Lycabettus, the Parthenon, and Jade.  I know.  She’s sacred too.  

The repartee aroused her, and I thought I’d done enough, but the question I was waiting for, “Would you like to come back to the hotel?” didn’t make it into words.  We all knew the question was there.  When they got back to their room, Jade would have said, “I’m just too tired to cope with Graham now.”

It wasn’t in the framework. 

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Friends for dinner

Jade asked me why I kept annoying her.

“I just do it because I like you.”

“I know.”

With Jade and Joy, I only apologised once.  They’d been around for dinner.  I saw Jade the next day. 

“You were horrible,” she said.  I agreed.  They were leaving Greece.  I wanted to visit them in England, and I was anxious now.  They mightn’t let me.  

I worry too much.  The whole country disappointed them.  They were so keen to leave, they were crossing each day off the calendar.   It was a nasty dinner, but when the insults were over, and they were back in their rooms as usual, another Greek day had been erased.  That was all that mattered.

They both wore summer clothes.  Jade took a bit more care.  She was almost pretty.  She had freshened up before she came.  It was almost exciting.  She had freshened up for me.  For Jade, of course, it was just part of going out to dinner.  In Greece, as in England, she arrived home by mid-afternoon, relaxed a little, and then got ready.  You could tell when she’d been in front of a mirror, and you could tell when Joy hadn’t. 

I had two chairs, so we all sat on the floor.  The windows were open.  There was movement in the street, a mixture of air and shadow, and one or two people.  The Old Town was cooling off.  We hadn’t been sitting there long, when Joy got up for something, and Jade said confidentially, “Graham, have you been drinking?”

“Yes,” I answered, very sombrely, too sombrely for someone who had only been drinking.   

“Why?”

“I don’t know.”  

Not know anything, and you couldn’t be more sombre.  Joy came back. 

“Graham’s being the nervous host,” she chuckled.  With Jade and Joy, I had never been awkward.

“Say shark for me,” said Jade.  I had always been Australian.  I hesitated, expecting her to laugh.  But, a moment later, when I said the word, she wasn’t listening anymore.

“Australian tennis players are so hunky.”  She had an image in her head – short, white pants, and muscles – and no one could take it away. 

Joy turned aside with her Jade-is-so-pathetic face.  I don’t know what kind of man excited her, but I know what kind didn’t, the ones that Jade liked, and me.  A fly noticed her.  She brushed it off her cheek, and said, “The flies start early up here.” 

“I’ll catch it if you like,” I said.  “You can take it with you.”

The first fly of summer, like the last rose.    

                    Houses in the Old Town, Salonica


A Scottish girl appeared at the window, one I’ve not mentioned before.  She stopped when she saw us, and said hallo.   She was nineteen – she had told me more than once – with a soft frame, and long, silky hair.  She looked very sweet and spoke very brightly.  Her house was at the end of the road.  Jade and Joy didn’t know her.

When you find a sweet girl in a place you don’t expect, it can feel like the answer to something.  They introduced themselves.  Smiles, polite words.  Silence.  I didn’t invite her in.  As soon as she had gone, Joy scolded me: “That was mean.  She obviously wanted to come in.” 

“You don’t know her.  She’s unbearable.”

Everyone tells me how good I am. 

I won prizes every year at school.

My boyfriend says my Greek is perfect. 

“So are you,” said Joy, “but we’re still here.”

I could see a few bare ankles.  I grabbed one of Jade’s, and said something I won’t include here. 

“Get off!” she snapped, and pulled her leg away.

They’d brought a cake, so we ate that, too.  At last, they were going.  Jade turned to me.  When you come around for dinner, there’s one more thing to do.  You say, in a perfect voice, “Thank you very much for having us.”