ARE YOU REALLY CALLED ARMSTRONG?
Annie and I were travelling in the remotest reaches of the Mani, in the Peloponnese, in August 1982, and it was like nowhere on earth. Barren, beautiful and infinitely austere, on almost every mountain and hillock there were the melancholy ruins of fifty or sixty year old Maniot ‘towers’. The towers were in fact peacock-strutting display items, meaning not strictly functional, for they were a sign of clan status and clan power. The higher your tower and the more inaccessible it was, the greater the hero you were, and hence the greater your Maniot clan. In order to achieve that sunny status, you had to knock down any and every tower nearby that was threatening to outdo yours.
Those of you who like me spent some formative years in the Debatable Lands of rural North East Cumbria will know the score. The 16th century Border Reivers in the lands that were debated i.e. argued as to whether they were rightly English or properly Scots, functioned by an ad hoc piracy law, as administered by the Wardens of the Marches. It was acceptable to demoralise and conquer other reiver neighbours, by burning down their houses and farms, and of course stealing all their cattle before you did that. Hence they were nothing short of riffraff cattle thieves, or unprincipled homicidal scum, to put it politely. But the beaming clowns in Carlisle and Dumfries tourist offices with their howmayIhelpyousirmadam? and their tweeting i-pads, who promote The Reiver Country for profitable visitor purposes, will even vauntingly brag about their own reiver ancestry: Armstrong, Moscrop, Elliott, Nixon, Bell, Carruthers, and all the rest. All shiny teeth and hexagonal specs, they will tell you po-faced how really underneath it all, they with their blazers and smart women’s suits, are bloody old reiver pirates too! Because they are called Bill or Sheila Armstrong, geddit? To which the proper answer might be, well so am I squire/madam, my name is quite a famous reiver bandit one, Richard Nixon, and I’m coming round to completely incinerate your Stanwix bungalow tonight, if that’s all right by you, old reiver oppo! In lieu of stealing any cattle which I seriously doubt are tranquilly grazing up there in Carlisle’s choicest bungalow suburb, if it’s OK by you I shall simply steal your splendid 4-wheel drive before I set about my immolation!
That is a digression from the Mani, but the same 16th century North Cumbrian ethical principle of stealing and vandalising and despoiling, because it was cathartically good for you, and for society as they knew it, long held true here in the remotest Peloponnese. The Mani consists of the Mid Mani and the Deep Mani, and the deeper you get, the wilder it is, and the more barren and naked. Areopoli was for us the Deep Mani gateway, a titchy, comical little town which in 1982 had mosquitoes by the mile, shuttered domatia windows that claustrophobically blocked all light to keep the little bastards at bay, and a single taverna whose non-existent menu you wouldn’t believe. They had gristly bony souvlaki that your dog might throw back at you and bugger off out for a carry-out in bigger and smarter Githion…meaning the Areopoli eatery had war economy kebabs, and that was it, like it or lump it. Luckily we had just turned vegetarian, so were able to get kolokythia tiganites, fried courgettes, plus chips, and of course the ubiquitous tomato. On a good day in 1982, if you went in some flea-bitten lightless cafe anywhere in rural Greece, the only food on offer was variously tomato salad, tomatoes sketo (tomatoes so to speak in the unspoilt nude), tomatoes with salt, tomatoes with olives and onions, but very curiously, no tomato-flavoured retsina or ouzo.
We were heading from the village of Laggia in the Deep Mani to the hamlet of Kotronas on the coast. We were hitchhiking with heavy rucksacks in broiling heat, because we were on a budget eight week pan-European Balkan and Turkish jaunt. The Greeks on Samothraki island had earlier told us not to go to nearby Turkey, because they would charge us extortionately for a humble glass of water, which was of course one hell of a lie. I had never heard a single Turk badmouth either Greece or the Greeks, and I told the Greeks as much, but they just shrugged their heads and said it was a trick, a bit of typical guile by the old enemy.
We had been trying for a lift for about an hour, when suddenly a pick-up stopped, one of those battered low slung 4-wheel drives owned by smallholders and olive-growing farmers. The driver was probably in his early fifties, while I was almost 32, and Annie had just turned 27. He was stocky, white-haired, sour-looking, fine-featured and could easily have been a market trader or a morose bus conductor. It was so hot that my wife wore khaki shorts and I noted the driver cast an aspiring glance at her thighs, while at the crafty speed of light looking away simultaneously. However at her beardy and hairy joke of a so-called husband, he looked all too critically. Suddenly he started loudly shouting at me, as was the standard way thirty-three years ago, hectoring and bawling, regardless of distance or age difference or international protocol. Greece had been only one year in the EEC, only eight years free of Junta Fascism, and in most respects the Greeks inhabited a wholly different universe. Ask many of them a civil and all too English question, and they raised their eyebrows with undisguised chagrin. It was as if being a blockhead in search of laughably inessential information (‘Scuse me. How far might it be to Kotronas, sir?) was a far too demeaning way of presenting yourself. Worse, should you be a dogged and plodding and nosy Cumbrian bastard like myself, and dare to ask a second or even a third question, they glanced at you with plain hatred, raising their eyebrows at least one metre with an infinitely patronising disdain.
The second question I asked him was, “Is this the quickest route?”
He snorted and spat, and looked at me with such depthless scorn. Quickest? What the shit was that supposed to mean? Why not ask him which the most tidy, most verdant, most birdsong-filled, most apt for a television advertisement about chocolates or honey or scented soap? What an idiot I was with my pansyish and feeble desire for facts, facts and more stupid facts…
I made the most obvious move which was to sit in the front with him. He stopped that brusquely and indicated that the handsome wife, not the skinny, hairy husband was to sit up front next to him. Scowling, he pointed his grubby thumb to the back of the pick-up. I had noticed a bit of a strange and worrying smell but it was only when I turned round to look at my berth as designated by him, that I saw it was full of…skinned goat carcasses…
They were bloody and sticky and riddled with flies. There must have been about twenty skinned skeletons piled up in the back and the odour was fleetingly tolerable but mostly infernal. The hides themselves were heaped close to the driver, as if he feared some highway bandit might ambush him and take his only decent source of income. He peremptorily indicated I should sit right at the back, meaning furthest from my beautiful wife, and the less beautiful him, but helplessly in proximity to these horrible bloody carcasses.
“Where are you from?”he snapped as he accelerated down the dusty highway. “Are you Germanos and Germanida?”
His voice was full of rancour and I really didn’t know whether he wanted us to be Germans or not. I hesitated a second or so and considered lying, on the assumption he would speak no German. But finally the naive truth seemed the safest option.
“No, we are English. From the far north of England. My wife is…”
He snorted rudely. He wasn’t wanting a CV, and again I realised I knew absolutely nothing about how exactly modern Greeks talk to each other and why they emphasise and interrogate they way they do.
“I don’t like Germans” he muttered roughly. “ If you had been young Germans, you can bet your life I wouldn’t have picked you two up.”
I nodded assent, because I could not fault this. It was only four decades since 1942, and in a village close to nearby Sparta, there had been a major Nazi reprisal where every shootable male and adolescent was brutally executed. Forty years is nothing in the scheme of things, once you get to be say 50, his age that is. Why, I was 24, forty years ago, and it all seems like five sodding minutes to me. And it’s perhaps worth emphasising that nobody was executing me, other than metaphorically, four decades ago.
“I thought with the woman you say is your wife, her ksantha mallia… “
Her blond hair? All blond-haired women being Germans, to invert the message in the Hitler propaganda movies? But why the austere qualification, that it was only my word that she was my wife? What was she supposed to be then, if not my wife? My floozy, my mistress, my cousin, my sister, meaning in the last context that I might be as unabashedly gay, as he was very obviously not.
“Yes, “I said rather moistly. “Other Greeks have said they thought she was German, but no, she’s not. She doesn’t speak German, and she’s only been to Germany once for a day. In Heidelberg that is.”
He turned round and shot me a listless but dismissive glance. It was that tendency I had towards being feebly discursive which clearly riled him…for adding more and more titbits of wishy-washy and very womanish information. Why tell him about bloody Heidelberg, when the incendiary word ‘Germany’ was quite enough to raise his bile, thank you?
The pick-up accelerated and he continued to shoot rapacious and discomforting glances at Annie and her shorts and her handsome legs. He addressed her in a shotgun Greek and seemed not to be concerned she knew not a word of the language apart from efkharisto and parakalo. Suddenly he pointed to the sun and cried ilio! and then waved his hand at some olive groves and bawled elees! Next he saluted a pissing dog on the side of the road and roared skeelo! It felt on the one hand like a 1980 LP version of Let’s Learn Greek! with the matter of fact paradigm nouns being rattled off musically by a goat skinner turned dhaskalo teacher. On the other hand his voice was so harsh and loud, there seemed to be more than a hint of raw machismo bullying, orchestrated so resoundingly because he had the stunning pseudo-German Beauty sat next to him at fondling distance and the risible Beast in the form of her hirsute bearded partner who quite rightly had been shoved in disgrace in among the stinking blood-sticky goat skeletons…
He drew to an abrupt and disturbing halt, as if either needing to urinate or to shoot us, either one or the other, with no other option. Annie who had comprehended nothing of our bizarrely unequal Greek discourse, didn’t seem too ruffled by his yelling at me and indeed at her, for she understood by now that foghorn interlocution was par for the course in much of rural Greece. The driver shuffled in his glove compartment (though parenthetically the Greeks don’t often wear gloves, not even in the iciest days of January). I had little doubt he was looking in there for a gun, but instead and believe me, it offered but scant relief when instead he pulled out a rather strange and very vicious looking knife.
I am no student of offensive weapons, so I have to compare it to a carpet-cutting implement crossed with something you might get in a biology laboratory, as used for animal dissections. The word dissection blew through my head at just that point, and in a second I had innocent Crippen and truly diabolical psychopaths, fighting it out between my stricken neurones and synapses. His knife was made of spotless shiny metal and seemed very sharp indeed. He lifted it and waggled it wildly, first at me and then at Annie. Then he said something I didn’t catch, but wrongly interpreted as kapou esee, a nonsense sentence meaning ‘somewhere you are’.
“Somewhere I am?” my oh so little and oh so stupid Cumbrian brain echoed in terror.“Ooh fuckaduck,” was what was soundlessly articulated inside my head and nowhere else. Meanwhile Annie continued apparently wholly unconcerned by his carpet knife brandishing. I admired her blameless sangfroid while also roundly astonished that she seemed to have no vision or intuition that we were in the unenviable company of a homicidal maniac. For consider, if you were a bloodthirsty Maniot mass murderer and rapist, what possible profession might you indenture yourself to by way of zealous prior preparation? Might it not be as a peripatetic goat skinner as opposed to a peripatetic Peloponnese trumpet teacher?
The driver ushered us out of the pickup, waggling his glistening knife even more violently. Annie smiled her way out into the blazing sunshine, as if he were a children’s circus act pretending to be loud and menacing, while I stepped out as stiffly, by which I mean nitrogen-frozen, as they come. The driver then tersely yanked a white sack out of the back of the pick-up, which I imagined might contain a goat’s nekrokefalo or Dead Skull, of the emphatically infernal as opposed to the neutral butcher’s shop variety.
He dropped the sinister skull on the grass, and in fact it bounced. It bounced because it was a bright green watermelon and I understood that I had misread karpoussi as kapou esee. He raised aloft his hideous blade and grinned like a seasoned madman at the pair of us. I looked at Annie who was still smiling and thought, she is such an infinitely sweet soul that she cannot imagine that other souls are born ineradicably diseased from their very inception.
“Let’s go, “I said to her sotto voice but more than audibly.
She thought she had misheard. “Back into the van?”
“No, what I mean is let’s just fuck off as fast as we can run. This guy is a real madman with a menacing and very ugly voice and he has a fucking great knife that could slit our throats as fast as Jack Frost, to mix an unseasonal metaphor. Add to that he has a dozen stinking goat skeletons in the back of his van, and they are riddled with fleas and before long me and you could be thoroughly skinned and flea-ridden too…”
Annie shivered and gaped, but as she offered no contradiction it occurred to me she was taking in the cruelly transparent meaning of our utterly appalling situation.
At last she managed to whisper, “But maybe he’s just offering us his watermelon…”
“Possibly, possibly yes, I agree. But he’s playing a cruel and demented game and the game is called Sadistic Ambiguity. He’s playing kindly hospitable with his fucking karpoussi while acting like a bullying and pathological brute. He really likes to look at your bare legs and your shorts, and waggling a knife at the pair of us is definitely because it gets him off. But also it’s partly because he likes to show his peacock colours as a real and strutting and very mannerless man, as opposed to a polite and timid and pretend young Englishman like myself.”
She shuddered as if the whole scenario had suddenly made a déjà vu and calamitous sense.
“So what do we do?”
“Get fucking walking!”
“As far away from fucking twatface as we can! Down that road and get going like you were being chased by a pair of prize bulls. Don’t for a second look back, and don’t talk to him and don’t accept his fucking melon and don’t…!”
And off she set down the road as fast as her elegant sunburnt pins could take her. The goat skinner started a whinnying monologue of angry incomprehension, but I looked him full in the eye and let the See You Next Tuesday scumbag know that I knew the colour of his fallen soul. Nonetheless I was stupefied when he suddenly stopped his jagged blathering, and blanched. What’s more, instead of scowling and rallying, he just gaped at me and said sweet f.a.
“Malaka, “I snarled at him.”Go on and go on, and fu…”
The trouble with malaka is it can mean ’fucking wanker’ but it can also mean ‘my dear old mate’.
“Malaka”, I repeated, then imitating my wife, set off at road-runner pace, shouting her name as I.ran behind her.