The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

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.

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