The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Monday, 8 July 2019

You’ve been a real friend

A few months after leaving Greece, I returned to Bryan’s and picked up my things. It was almost four years until I saw him again. I didn’t go to Salonica straightaway. I flew to the island of Skyros, via Athens. I told him I was going, but I didn’t invite him. It was cruel. Bryan was bored at home. All those sewing evenings. He snored, though, and wandered off when we travelled together. The boredom had knitted into him.

On Skyros, my first morning, I ate sweet bougatsa, walked empty roads and smelt the wild sage. A farmer gave me a lift on his tractor, a mile or so, but when I got down, I felt I knew him. Bryan would have liked all of this. I was looking for Rupert Brooke’s grave. Bryan had mentioned it. Tris Boukes. I can hear his soft voice. His lips moved gingerly. He didn’t speak Greek and never tried to learn, but he was pleased; he’d pronounced it. The grave was worth a visit, he said, but it was hard to find. There were no signs. That wildness again. In England, there would have been a trail. Perhaps there is now. The neatness would spoil it, but you’d find the grave. He passed on some tips. They weren’t very useful. I never found it. If he’d been there, he would have shown me for himself. But he wasn’t. I hadn’t wanted him. Brooke was long dead, and Bryan is too. I’m not very good at finding graves.

If I had to be buried in a hard place, I’d choose Tris Boukes. I’ve seen a photograph: a plot on a stony slope, ringed by olive trees. I got close. I remember stony ground, a quiet sea and an olive grove, just not the right one. Brooke rested there with his party, that April, when the sage was flowering, long before any photographs. It is, indeed, a lovely place; not worth dying for but lovely nonetheless. We like a dead poet more than a living one. The Greeks like Brooke more than the English do – ironically, considering what he wrote, a foreign field being forever England. Maybe they haven’t read his poems.

In Salonica, I went to see Bryan. I apologised for going to Skyros without him. He swung his head around and peered at me mournfully. I made an excuse about the timetable and fully-booked flights. He wasn’t convinced. He thought I didn’t care. Perhaps I didn’t.

When I left, he was standing in the entrance to his apartment block, facing the road. I noticed the lines near his mouth, then caught his eye and wished I hadn’t. He’d read my mind. You’re old. But I said, “You’ve been a real friend.”

The words were banal, yet they felt apt – until I’d said them. They touched Bryan, anyway. His eyes misted. He meant a lot to me, but I meant more to him. Without our knowing, it was the last time we met.

His apartment block was on a corner at the edge of the paralia. For some reason, it had two addresses, one for each side of the corner, though the entrance was only on one. The addresses were written above the door, to prevent ambiguity, I suppose. That was the intention. He advised me to put both of them on the letters I sent. 

“If they don’t get to me at one, they will at the other.”

I wasn’t sure, and now he’s not at either.

To get to Bryan’s, I usually took a bus along the paralia. Sometimes, I chose a different route, the number 6, down Vasilissis Olgas. From Bryan’s stop, you walk through narrow lanes between apartment blocks. They mute the traffic. It’s not far, but it’s so dark and dusty, you might be underground. When you reach Bryan’s, you reach the sun; you feel, even here, in drab Salonica, the dazzle of the islands. Walking back, it’s not so nice. The lanes are the same, but the harbour’s missing, and Bryan isn’t waiting on the other side. On my final walk, I heard a man yelling. I turned around. Two women were jogging towards me. They didn’t look Greek. The man was waving his fist at them, like a scene from a movie. They must have stolen something, money, probably, but there are other things. It was theirs now, whatever it was, safe beneath the shawls. As they drew nearer, I saw they were smiling. They hardly jogged, and then they walked, like me. He was too old to chase them.