The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Saturday, 8 June 2019

Where are you?

If I rang Bryan, his wife always answered the phone, always in Greek, in a loud, public voice. “Eμπϼos!” (Embros!) She was Greek, in Greece, but I thought: No one rings Bryan. When she knew it was me, she'd ask in English, more privately, with intent, “Where are you?”  

The warm tone seemed odd. I wasn’t important to her. On one occasion, when I arrived at the apartment, she said, “You never come!” 

It was odder still – a reprimand. She was right, of course; I could have gone more often. We lived in the same city. But why would she care? Then I understood. Bryan must have talked about me. The reprimand was her way of saying he missed me. She was caring for him. I liked her a bit more. They were fond of each other, but they married old. They had little in common. She wanted company. He needed a place to live. She had friends; he didn’t. I kept away because she annoyed me. At the start, Bryan did too, annoy me, I mean. He went on about old trains and old cameras, like a young boy, one who loved what was old. He was a man of tradition.

“I don’t like those programs that make fun of priests.”

He didn’t seem religious. Some transgressions he approved of; for example, the ‘moonlight flit.’ He liked that term. It evoked his Bohemian days, the adventures of youth. He related his best stories again and again, like the Spanish landlady who crossed herself before she lit the boiler. They used to explode, the boilers and the landladies if you didn’t pay the rent. In Salonica, Bryan did nothing unwise or, if he did, I didn’t find out. He didn’t travel much and he wasn’t renting. The moonlight flits had ceased. There was no need for them. 0n the other hand, he followed my own transgressions with a smile.

When I left Greece, I thought about keeping the house, renting from afar. Romantic but expensive if I wasn’t living there, and the landlady annoyed me. (I get annoyed easily.) I decided to move out once and for all. I told Bryan one evening at his dining room table.

“I’m letting the house go.” 

He glanced across in his pregnant way. For both of us, it was quite a step; a deeper farewell. The old ladies didn’t hear. They continued knitting as if I wasn’t there, as if I’d gone already.

I gave Bryan my short-wave radio so he could listen to the BBC. He offered to pay, but I refused. He put me on the coach to Italy, with my ‘Turkish’ carpet, as he called it. He wore a silk scarf on his neck, elegantly, like a gentleman abroad. He offered me money again, reaching for his wallet, though he never drew it out. I refused again. It was a wet day. He looked at the beating rain and said what he always said at such times.

“It’ll wash away a lot of sins.”

We weren’t saying goodbye, not yet. I was coming back for the rest of my ‘Turkish’ possessions. It was sad enough. A strong wind was blowing, the Vardar, from the mountains of Yugoslavia (another old thing). He’d been there and the Balkans in general. It was a wild place, I think, in his mind, the barbarian north, if you live in Greece. He didn’t say a lot, but when a north-westerly blew, he referred to it.

“The Vardaris.”

The name meant something, especially the way Bryan said it. He was feeling the past, not just a wind. The Vardar. It’s the reason we were cold.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Naked on the Mountain

When Bryan died, I talked about him with his brother-in-law. I remember saying this, the exact words: “He never said anything, but I think he saw me as a kind of son.”

Let’s keep him for a while, and I’ll tell you about our final trip to Athos. We stayed the first night at Símona Petra. We’d been before. It was one of our favourite monasteries. As soon as we arrived, a monk served us ouzo and water, coffee and loukoumi, on a tray, in small receptacles (as Bryan would say), except for the water, which was in a big glass. We’d nearly missed it – a bed, too; they were about to close the door.

“I couldn’t manage without this,” Bryan said, eyeing the tray.

“It’s the only reason I come!”

Bryan smiled and glanced at me, wondering how much I meant it.

We didn’t come to Athos for the food. It was poor and not enough.  Once – I’ve forgotten where; Símona Petra or one of the other ‘pretty’ monasteries on the west coast – I offered my lentils to Bryan, and he took them. I wasn’t expecting him to. He didn’t like lentils and he could see I had nothing else. He must have been starving. You could tell from the way he ate my dinner. As I watched, I felt like a parent. I was happy for him and with myself. I also regretted it. I was hungry.

After the meal – Bryan’s meal – we sat on a balcony overlooking the inner courtyard; a tiny space, and the church filled most of it. It’s what the yard was for. Monks don’t walk dogs or play ball. There was a tree or two, a ring of cobbles and enough room to get into the church. I spoke abruptly to Bryan, a profanity (as he would say). I don’t recall which one, but it weighed like stone. Bryan didn’t swear, and we were on a holy mountain, in a monastery; above all, a place of beauty, where you say nothing; you fast from words, even kind ones. I didn’t do it again, but he never did it to me.

In the dormitory, I opened my knapsack. I had a few things, though we couldn’t eat them. There was a yellow torch, a miniature for travel, which I’d bought in Greece. Bryan liked it. I still have it in my drawer, and it works, or it did when I last tried it. The chain is broken. There was a mirror from a street market in Jaipur near the Palace of Winds. It was round, very light and could stand up by itself, then fold when you were finished, with a plastic cover to protect the glass. Bryan liked that, too. The monks don’t have mirrors. They aren’t allowed. He turned it in his fingers, carefully, like a piece of contraband. It’s long gone.

Things can seem more valuable than they are, and others you don’t appreciate. Bryan stroked my chin, the soft underpart, with a forefinger. We were sitting on his bed. When he fell asleep, I changed dormitories – not because he stroked me; he snored. That night, I slept well. I had a whole room to myself. However, in the morning, when I walked back to Bryan, he looked at me strangely.

I bathed on a hillside, by a shady path, though it wasn’t secluded. In those days, you couldn’t wash in the monasteries. There weren’t any bathrooms. We found a pipe sticking out of a rock, with no tap, so it never stopped flowing. The water came straight from the mountain. It was frigid. Bryan wandered off. He was being polite – I was naked – but he came back too soon. He wasn’t the kissing sort. He may have been concerned. If I took too long, the monks might catch me. I’m a slow washer. He probably just got tired of waiting.

We walked on, in sunshine now. It was warm and felt warmer after my cold bath. Bryan was ahead of me. On a level part, he halted and said that I’d hear from his lawyer when he died. He came out with it abruptly, as I used to do. It wasn’t like Bryan.

“There’ll be something for you.”

I’d considered death and Bryan but not together. I didn’t want to discuss it. I assumed the ‘something’ was books. I really did. Years on, I realised it was money. Bryan planned. He had planned this, too, to tell me on the mountain. It was the right moment, a place we both loved, and the right path: exquisite, certainly; just sun and gorse, sea and stones, open to the world, yet private, between the two of us. As it happened, when he died, there was nothing, no money, that is. I was disappointed. I couldn’t help it. Maybe he ran out or changed his mind. I could have visited more often; once a decade wouldn’t have hurt. One year, he passed through London but didn’t tell me until he’d gone. “I had some business to do.” He didn’t say what it was. Did he rewrite his will? It sounds a tad dramatic. But when I had the thought, silly as it was, it stayed in my head, as Bryan does now. I’m still poor, still silly. Perhaps the lawyer died first.

Monday, 8 April 2019

A kiss in the Hotel Tourist

I popped into the consulate before it shut down. I had my photographs of Mt Athos to show Terry. The prints delighted him, genuinely, I thought, so I gave them to him. I kept the negatives. When he moved to England, he showed the photos to some friends. They decided to go to Athos together. They’d travel to Salonica first, then continue to the Holy Mountain.

So, Terry came back to Greece like most people, on holiday, a plain citizen. The consul was no more. He brought three friends – he liked his party of four – but one of them irked even Terry. When the others couldn’t hear, he confided, “Gerald comes across too camp.”

There was an air of expectation about them, as if they had a mission to fulfil. I pictured them at Ouranoupolis, city of heaven, assembled on the pier, like schoolboys on a trip, then boarding the boat to Athos, a special boat which left the girls behind.

After they returned, I went around to their hotel room. If I hadn’t, there wouldn’t have been a kiss in the Hotel Tourist, not one involving me. They were going back to England, and I wanted to say goodbye to Terry. At the end of the evening, when I was about to leave, he leaned his face forward – he didn’t say anything – and kissed me on the left cheek. He was drunk; he was maudlin, though he mightn’t have done it in front of Bryan. Three men stood next to us. They all saw the kiss and they all condoned it. I think I did as well. There isn’t much else to say. It was very quick. A kiss in the Hotel Tourist – a chapter heading, not the title for a book; a thing you do with sadness as much as love, like a last sip of ouzo, when you’re leaving Greece and you aren’t sure if you’re coming back again. A kiss is like the person who gives it, and this one felt like Terry: gentle, spontaneous, not too wicked but not too innocent. There weren’t any more. It was our final meeting. I didn’t tell Bryan about the kiss. I didn’t need to. I could guess what he’d do. He’d swing around with a touch of rhetoric, then say, with a second touch: “Oh, did he?”

In every monastery, there’s a prominent sign, normally in the pilgrims’ quarters by the door. The wording varies, but the message, in several languages, is the same: no inappropriate behaviour or disrespect to the Holy Mountain. Examples include noise and bare skin; ordinary things, really, for most people. If you break the rules, you risk being “cast out” of the monastery, like devils, I assume. We used to smile at the signs, Bryan and I; at most things, in fact, when I knew him better. We imagined being thrown off the roof. A Greek hotel has signs but nothing like these.

A few years later, when I was living in Rome, I got a letter from Terry asking if he could stay with me ‘if things get too difficult over here.’ It was ominous. He’d never said anything like that. There were no more letters. Some months passed, a year at most. Bryan sent me the news. Terry’s wife had divorced him. He’d been cast out again. First, it was a country, Cyprus, when the Turks invaded; then a mountain, Athos, when he hurt his ankle; next, a town, Salonica, when the consulate closed; and now his own home in England. As always, he adapted; he found another place, for the time being, anyway. He was living with a young man, Bryan said, adding, “It’s not homosexual or anything like that.”                                                           

Good old Terry. He’ll be chuckling somewhere. He liked irony. They re-opened the British consulate. Better still, the consul is a woman.

Friday, 8 March 2019

It looks like pee

We were leaving Esfigmenou. In the reception area, a monk appeared and called me with a forefinger. Terry raised his eyebrows. I followed the monk. He knew what he was doing, if no one else did. He had a stoop and scuttled off in his black robes like a beetle on some key, insect task. It was only a few steps, to a tiny room with a table against the wall, nothing more, and no window. The monk shut the door behind us.

The others waited, but they were standing there in their walking clothes, with a traveller’s purpose, keen to go. I wasn’t long. When I came out, I said, “He asked me for dollars.”

“We thought he was going to rape you!” Terry chuckled. He also sounded relieved. Why did the monk choose me? Did I seem the biggest tourist, the most likely to have dollars, or the least significant, the least likely to object? Pick the weak off first – it’s what lions do, and beetles in their own fashion. What the monk tried was wrong, the black market, but it wasn’t so bad. We thought he was going to rape you! You didn’t think too much.

Sometimes, Terry spoke up. The night before, I’d rinsed my shirt to get the sweat out. I draped it on a chair between Terry’s bed and mine. In the morning, there was a pool of water.

“It looks like pee!” he said, not in his chuckling voice. For someone as gentle as Terry, it was almost shrill. He didn’t want the blame for what I’d done. He also disliked mess. Water wasn’t pee, but it was inappropriate, not all the time, just now, in its current position, a bit like Terry.

On the path to Vatopedi, we heard an odd noise. Terry was unsettled.

“What was that?”

“I thought it was my stomach,” I said. We’d had beans for ‘breakfast.’ Terry had warned us, half-jokingly, about flatulence. He stopped walking now and beheld me.

“You know,” he said, as if to himself, though everyone was listening, “I think Graham’s rather wonderful.”

A lot can happen on a country walk. We saw a lynx on a high slope, escaping from view; an elongated cat with different ears. The young man said, “They roam wild here.”

“Roam wild here,” echoed Terry. He turned to me again. “Graham, would you mind carrying my bag?” He watched me take it for a few steps, then said, “You must be as strong as an ox! So thin, too.”

Then he walked off with the young man, animated, as if their conversation was enthralling. I glanced at Bryan. He was hurt. Terry had forgotten us.

It was spring. That’s something beautiful. I mentioned herbal tea. Bryan replied, “It’s an abomination!”

We rested on a patch of grass, all four of us, and dozed off in the sun. When we woke up, I said, “I hope no one’s been…interfered with.”

Terry chuckled as he always did when I made that kind of comment. The young man grimaced on cue but laughed when Terry said, “No, unfortunately.”

Terry twisted an ankle on the path. It was his light, canvas shoes, Bryan said; they weren’t appropriate for the stony track, for the mountain. He said it politely, though he disapproved. Terry left early on a kind of ambulance boat. The young man left too. There was no point in staying.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Orthodoxy or Death

I told Jade and Joy I was going to Mt Athos with the British consul on an official visit. Joy was enthusiastic. Jade was thoughtful. She dreamed of going. She was a zealous Briton and a sterling girl. Not only, as a female, was she barred from Athos, but I, the man who teased her, was going there with the Queen’s envoy, the man from Old Blighty, who had no idea she existed. She mumbled jealously: “You’ll land on your feet.”

Terry was right about the jeep. One was waiting for us when the boat docked at Dafni. It took us up the hill to Karyes, leaving the lesser pilgrims in the dust. Our permits were examined in a large, ancient building, perfect for the seat of a Monastic Republic but with a Greek flag outside. There was Terry, Bryan and a young man whose name I forget. An aide lowered his face to my ear and asked me softly in Greek, “Who is the consul?” I pointed discreetly. In a way, I was flattered. The aide had asked me. I was, in his opinion, the person most likely to understand – or the one least likely to be the consul.

We were heading on to Esfigmenou. The jeep took us as far as Vatopedi. After that, the road stopped, so we had to walk. The monastery looked a dreary place. There was a giant, black banner on the side and a flag, like a skull and cross bones, with the same message.

ΟΡΘΟΔΟΞIa H ΘaΝaΤΟC (ORTHODOXY OR DEATH)

The monks were in a power struggle with the ruling body. Esfigmenou is used to a fight. It’s on the eastern flank of the peninsula, at the top as you hold the map. It was the first port for marauding Turks. Terry had lost his job because of them, the modern sort, a proper invasion: Cyprus. He was the last British consul in Kyrenia. He lost his house, too.

“A pretty little town,” he said wistfully. “There was a café on the waterfront. I used to drink ouzo and watch the sun set.”

"Didn't the Turks invade because the junta in Athens was plotting a coup?" I'd heard it on the BBC. "They thought there'd be a massacre by the Greeks."

An embarrassed silence. I had said the wrong thing; not wrong, perhaps, in terms of history, but wrong because it embarrassed Terry. I couldn’t tell why. I wasn’t siding with the Turks, though I might have seemed to be. His wife was Greek. Perhaps he had no idea why the Turks invaded. For us, of course, the reason didn’t matter. The invasion did; it succeeded, for the Turks, and without it I never would have met him, or Bryan, probably. Terry moved to Salonica.

“Now, I have to move again,” he lamented. The consulate was closing. There’d be an honorary consul instead, a Greek man, in smaller offices. It wouldn’t cost so much. “I asked Geoffrey to have a word with Margaret. He said there was no point; he can’t do anything with her.”

The young man pricked up his ears.

“Geoffrey Howe? You know Geoffrey Howe?”

Mrs Thatcher’s Foreign Secretary at the time. Terry nodded but was silent. The young man turned to Bryan and asked him about his work. It had been for a UN body, reconstruction in Europe or something.

“An important post?”

“Yes, I suppose it was.”

More silence. The young man didn’t turn to me. In the morning, Terry asked me to find out about breakfast. He was aware I spoke Greek. He wasn’t aware how little. When a monk came out of the kitchen, I translated the word Terry used. It was another wrong thing. I couldn’t recall the monks’ term. I should have just said food.

“When is breakfast?”

“Breakfast! Breakfast!”

The Greek word resembles a clucking noise. Cried indignantly, it’s even better. I pictured a big, black hen. In a fury, the monk returned to the kitchen. It’s a dangerous thing to do. There was a roar. A flash of fire reflected on the wall. I said in English: “His beard’s gone up in flames.”

“Beard’s gone up in flames,” Terry laughed. It startled the young man. He collected himself, then managed a grimace.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Mr David Manner

There are no two ways about it. Mt Athos is a fortress of discrimination. No women, of course. I should stand with the oppressed and refuse to go. In a sense, however, I am one of them. A hundred Greeks are allowed on the mountain per day, but only ten foreigners. It’s official. A Greek is ten times more important. Orthodox clerics are exempt from the quota, but they still need a letter of recommendation. There’s a wrong type of Orthodox, too.

“You should be fine,” Terry said when he signed my application. He was commenting on my chances of admission. I was finer than he imagined. Once, when I was on Athos alone, I decided to stay an extra night beyond the four-day limit. I told the monastery I’d missed the boat. There was one a day. The extra night was illegal, but they let me stay. There wasn’t much choice, since the boat had gone, though they weren’t bothered. I could have stayed longer. All the same, Terry may have known things I didn’t. The monks mightn’t want you in the first place.

One morning, I took Manur to the consulate. Terry observed him, then put his reading glasses on. He checked Manur’s passport, every page. I have an image in my head of his turning certain pages upside down to examine them more closely. I’m probably exaggerating. But there may have been something, a stamp, a black cross, an empty space which disqualified Manur. With his office work, Terry normally followed the rules, though he broke others, as I found out later. We all exaggerate, Manur included. His face had a tight expression. The passport scrutiny upset him. It got worse.

“Manur David Madyan.”

Terry read out the full name on the ID page (I’ve changed it slightly). Along with his official tone, there was a hint of doubt. He reflected for a moment, then started writing on the application form.

“We’ll make that David Manner.”

I liked the we. He wasn’t changing Manur's name forever. He couldn’t, could he? He did it for Mt Athos, for the permit, to make a better case for admission. He also put Manur down as British. He was doing him a favour. He was lying and he disliked people who did that. Manur looked even more uncomfortable. I felt a monstrous laugh bubbling in my chest but kept it there. When the application was done, Terry took his glasses off and sat back in the chair. He was pleased with himself. Manur had passed the interview, albeit in an altered form. Diplomacy is about compromise. He was now an Englishman and, implicitly, a Christian (I think he was already), not quite the right kind for the monks, but as good as they usually got with a foreigner, better – in their view and possibly in Terry’s – than most of the alternatives. Terry didn’t notice the humour. Manur didn’t either. After the interview, as soon as the door was shut, he said “I don’t like him” and quivered with disgust. “David was my father’s name.” 

     Terry meant well, but surely admission was guaranteed, as long as you paid the fee. Your name wouldn’t make any difference, or your race or religion. We were all non-Orthodox, all damned. 

     There’s one thing Terry didn’t mention – not till we were on the mountain  the rumours about the monks. I say we. The next time I saw Manur, he told me about the monks’ sexual habits. The rumours, that is. His Greek friends at the university had filled him in, gleefully, I expect, when he referred to Mt Athos. If he went, he would not just sacrifice his name, his filial pride and his nationality but his maidenhead as well. It was too much. Manur no longer wished to go. In the end, he disqualified himself.