My girlfriend Monica and I were recently in North Syros, in an exquisitely furnished taverna that wouldn’t have been out of place in central Athens, when we observed something most unusual. The Isle of Syros is the hub of the Cyclades, its Hora of Ermopouli a city in its own right, and the administrative capital of the island group. Not so long ago remote North Syros was all terrible potholed roads, and was well nigh inaccessible without a 4-wheel drive or pick-up. There was then no beautifully arrayed taverna run by 2 go-ahead guys in their early 30s, both with very good English, much less reserved tables for Ermopouli day-trippers wanting Sunday lunch. We were reflecting on the anomaly of a place going from an unvisited backwater to a recreational hotspot, all thanks to the do or die innovation of asphalted roads, when we noticed the singular group next to our table. There was a groovy looking Dad about 50 who might well have passed for an Athens actor or painter, with his pony tail and cavernous features, his wife with hennaed hair who had her back to us, another couple who might have been their best friends, and 2 kids. The boy of about 12 was facing us and like every other 12 year-old kid from Syros to Samarkand, was playing very earnestly with his i-phone. The handsome girl of 10 was sat adjacent to the Mum with her arm wrapped round her, which was unremarkable enough, but what struck Monica and myself as extraordinary, was that she could not stop kissing her Mum, and by that I do not mean 2 minutes worth of gentle girlish kisses. She kissed her mother’s cheek tenderly and protractedly and passionately, and kept on doing so without stint for the whole time we were there, viz. about 2 hours.
None of the others paid any attention to this, and the Mum was obviously happy enough to receive this touching daughterly love, about every 10 kisses turning and giving her a loving affirmatory peck, certainly nothing as impassioned and obsessive as the child’s caresses. The best way of describing it was that the repetitive kissing by the girl indicated some of sort of profound emotional necessity, or even that it represented a mild kind of life support. She loved her Mum so much, and needed to nurture herself with the closest contact to such an extent, she reminded me very much of my 3 young male cats who spend ages adoringly grooming, petting and mothering each other, though in their case they often arbitrarily change sentimental tack and give each other a massive bite in the neck. The pair of us gazed fascinated at this unprecedented kissing fest. Both of us once had daughters her age, but neither of us could have imagined them adoring us so openly and naively and publically as this. We wondered whether it indicated something very obvious, such as either the daughter or mother had had a recent serious illness, or car accident, or obligatory absence from the family. The weirdest thing was that no one else at the table paid it the slightest attention, and less weird was that both of us English observers felt mildly uneasy and discomfited by the spectacle. It wasn’t so much that both of us were paradigm stifled, uptight, inexpressive Brits, as even by Greek standards this kissing marathon really was extraordinary. Greek men as well as women routinely greet close friends by handshaking, hugging, kissing both their cheeks, and sometimes this can keep on going intermittently for the 10 minute encounter i.e. they never let go of their bosom pal and can’t resist hugging and kissing them three or four times throughout the delightful pow-wow. But that, you might say, is an expression of excessive affection, not a kind of choreography of apparent filial neediness, or an artless ballet of a child seemingly needing the life support of her mother’s presence.
Apropos obsessive love, you might find it hard to believe, but despite the internet, tweeting and texting, and the ubiquitous dominance of oh so deep virtual relationships from Auchtermuchty to Amersham and Accrington, strong passion and adoration in real time are still alive and kicking in the UK these days, just as they were in Shakespeare’s time. This at any rate was true in 2013 UK, though in a complicated way, and in good old West Cumbria of all places, the last resort of volcanic and disabling passion you might reasonably think. Sad to say it did not concern 2 consenting adults, whether straight or gay, but a woman friend of about my age of 64, a penniless artist called Mary who scraped a living doing things like pub signs and portraits of pet Pekinese and budgerigars, who had finally accepted she had been dumped by the boyfriend she had had off and on for the last decade. He had grown up kids by his long finished marriage, and one of his daughters who was going through an emotional crisis, and whom he doted on, had persuaded him to have a go with his ex-wife again, even though he had often told Mary that she Carla was insufferable in every conceivable way, and no one could possibly have lived with her for 20 years, other than a brainless masochist and a feckless martyr such as himself. He was a musician and composer called Rex, aged 70, and once Mary accepted Rex was no longer on the scene, but back ensconced with hideous Carla, she had opted for a pugnacious and perpetual chastity. She didn’t think men, and certainly not that joke known as sex, were worth it. They were both hypocritical snares, and she would frankly sooner sublimate any notional cravings by having a glass of wine and a smoked salmon sandwich, or even a bloody Shippam’s fishpaste sandwich when it came to sensuous excess.
And yet cynical Mary had found adoring and enduring passion in an unexpected quarter. Her first grandchild David had been born in 2010 way down south in Surrey, but she had seen him only sporadically as a baby, not least because she had such a colossal quantity of ill-paid part time work in Cumbria, she was not like the likes of me, JM, she snorted sardonically, and had had no free time to speak of, not even to visit family. Her daughter Sarah who lived in Reigate, had recently brought David aged 3 up to stay with Nana while she carried on to meet a friend up in Edinburgh, and then to holiday up in the Outer Hebrides. As a result, Mary had had her first grandson all to herself for a whole 10 days, and had, guess what, fallen deeply in love with the perfect little boy. Big time was the precise expression she used, and for once the cliché had some definite force. When Sarah returned from the Uists and took David back to Reigate, Mary was literally bereft, agonisingly so, and totally unprepared for the strength of the sadness of parting. Now if she thought of passion at all, it was certainly not of relationships and amorous intimacy with fools called men, nor even of smoked salmon sandwiches and Gancia wine, but of her truly angelic little grandchild David. She had now committed to looking after him as much as practically possible, when Sarah as a fashion designer was on the road or abroad, and Nana Mary now took her freelance work down to Reigate in her car, rather than slaving away alone and without a man in W Cumbria. Sarah had even managed to get her mother bits and bobs of art commissions down in Surrey, where predictably the rates of pay were at least 3 times what they were in bloody old Cumbria.
Here is a third example of anomalous and unbelievable passion, and one that possibly proves the existence of the Eternal Soul. Let us go backwards exactly 30 years, to when my wife Annie was a field social worker in an obscure part of the north of England, a large and ugly and impoverished town whose principal industry had gone down the drain with catastrophic social consequences a few years earlier. Annie was only 28 and only 3 months qualified in August 1983, and she had a major professional problem on her hands. She had a case of 2 chronically feckless people, an elderly couple who had mild learning difficulties, or as their indignant neighbours termed it, were daft, hopeless, a pair of bloody halfwits. They lived in a row of town centre terraces and were both about 70, and like many a 5 star halfwit were great enthusiasts for cats and dogs, and owned about 10 of the former and 5 of the latter. Both being weak and infirm, she especially, the dogs did not get any exercise beyond going out into the backyard, nor had anyone ever told the couple about these miraculous gadgets known as catflaps and litter trays. By late summer of that year, the stenches from their yard and from the open windows of their house, were impressive and unprecedented outside of a Bangladesh civic sewage works. When Annie and a male colleague, also about 28, went to inspect, they had to clutch their noses very tight, after George the beaming husband, with luckily nil sense of smell, came to the door. George was very affable and deferential, and offered them tea and crumble creams, but the miasmic and infernal stink was beyond words, absolutely lethal. There were fossilised as well as fresh dog and cat faeces everywhere, the dust and filth of years if not decades, mountains of unwashed crockery in the kitchen sink, and plates covered in the fetching blue mould of ancient tinned meals, a scene of rabid squalor to strike the most hardened professional as something off the scale.
You may not know it, but in scenes of minor mayhem and/or domestic carnage in a social work context, rather than go through the rigmarole and delay of arranging specialist cleaners, a young fieldworker will roll up his or her sleeves, and get on with the cleaning themselves. Annie’s colleague had once entered a room where a man had slashed his wrists and only just survived, and the young social worker had grimaced and sighed and got down on his knees, and industriously scrubbed away all the rivers of blood from the floor and wallpaper. There was no chance of the 2 of them doing the house cleansing here, as only a specialist outfit with masks and superheated steam and the like, could possibly sort out this Hieronymus Bosch phantasmagoria. What that meant was that Annie and her colleague had to find temporary accommodation for George and wife Edna, and as Edna could barely walk and was in a wheelchair much of the time, and had an IQ of about 50, she had to be put in a residential home for psychogeriatrics. George was a horse of another colour, with an IQ of 60, and though very dozy, could get about and after a fashion function solo, and also had a brother in town who would reluctantly put him up for the interim.
In 1983 Edna’s residential home had strict visiting hours, which could only be changed by special arrangement over the telephone. George did not know how to use a telephone, and even if he had, he would have been stumped when it came to saying anything into it. As a result he had only late morning and early evening visits to see his wife, which by his doting standards, were nowhere near enough to support the monumental intensity of their love. The pair of them had enough wits for her to understand that she always had to sit in the armchair next to the huge bay window which faced out into the garden. There were no such things as security codes or locked gates in those days, and consequently in non-visiting hours George could stand outside at the massive window, devotedly beaming in at his beloved wife Edna for hour after hour after hour. He only left when it turned dark, and he sustained himself with cold pork pies and cans of lemonade bought from the nearby Coop. The staff at first had tried to persuade him to go away until the next visiting time, especially as he also had the habit of standing there heedless of the pissing rain and the freezing cold, but whenever they chased him away, like a cat or a dog he always came back. The Head of Home dithered about giving him special status that would have allowed him unlimited visits, but decided it would set an unworkable precedent. Thus it was that the legendary love of George and Edna was allowed to act itself out in the back garden of a now demolished Old Folks Home for the best part of 6 months. They were 70 then and would be 102 if they were alive today. They had been married 45 years in 1983, and somehow despite being halfwits had managed to stick together and bash along and stagger along united in their adoring and unquestionable love. Ultimately they were both placed in a brand new remarkably progressive residential home in lush even princely married quarters, with a double bed to boot, something only feasible in the British residential social work context from around 1980 onwards.
Who knows what they got up to in their double bed? Well of course everyone knows. Only a halfwit of another and truly hopeless kind, wouldn’t know.