BUNNY AND TRUDI (a short story)

The next post will be on or before Wednesday June 7th

BUNNY AND TRUDI (a short story)

Bunny and Trudi have now become fused in my memory as just one unforgettable woman rather than two, even though they were extremely different in every way. Bunny’s favourite musicians were Barry Manilow the American crooner and Neil Diamond ditto, who is also of course a prolific composer. If you have ever heard Manilow’s Christmas Favourites album and especially his faithful rendering of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, you will have experienced the apogee of something or other, transcendental cachexia perhaps. Trudi on the other hand was an expert on opera and also being from Hamburg knew of such obscurities as the Minor Baroque composers. I have an old 1965 compilation album on a German label with the beautiful music of Samuel Capricornus, the Pla Brothers, Ritter and the most attractively named Fux, and Trudi was the only person I had ever met who had independently discovered them and venerated them as I did. The pair of us in emails would vehemently mock the inane designation of Minor, for the likes of Capricornus at any rate. Very well, we agreed, assuming a giant like JS Bach might be the musical equivalent of Shakespeare, no one in their right mind would therefore assert that Ibsen was a Minor Dramatist just because he wasn’t on the cosmic scale of the Bard. We also talked about our children (she had a son called Paulus who was a gifted jazz bassist with a group recently signed up by ECM) and we talked endlessly about food and drink, and Trudi is one of the few women I know who can knock back ouzos till the island goats come home, and with but few ill effects other than smelling strongly of aniseed the following day. She worked in Athens as a freelance translator and like most immigrant Germans had excellent Greek and well-nigh flawless English. Indeed, she spoke the lingua franca much better than Bunny for example, who I got to know via emails and a few phone calls, those in which she innocently failed to tell me about her musical preferences and one or two other rather vital considerations, or there is a fair chance we would never have met…

“Yes, this is Bunny Shotover speaking. Is it sunny there with you on your teeny little island? It’s melting the flipping pavement here in Halkidiki, and it’s the end of blinking October. Good old Greece, eh, that’s why we’re all assembled here, let’s face it.”

Bunny sounded warm and wholesome over the phone, friendly and confiding and pleasant and comforting to chat to. Her photo showed her to be decidedly homely, and in the right light reasonably attractive, though hard as I tried I couldn’t stop thinking of her as looking ever so slightly like a whimsical little owl (interestingly the French for ‘female owl’ is schouette which also means ‘lovely’. It’s a pity it doesn’t mean ‘homely’). You would have thought her the last person in the world to be an expat dwelling in Halkidiki as she had about 6 words of Greek, but then I suppose that is true of many expats or at least the ones who consort exclusively with other Brits, or only with those locals, particularly friendly bar and taverna owners, who have the obligatory English. Her marriage to Dennis an electrician had broken up twenty years ago, back in Birmingham, though she originated from rural Norfolk and still had the accent. After a decade, she met Reg who was a builder and who was planning to emigrate to Greece where the weather was better and where there would be building opportunities galore. She and Reg stayed very amiably together for five years, relishing the sun and the sea and the great grub and the cheap booze, and then one boiling day he decamped to live two miles up the road in a luxury villa with a woman twenty years his junior called Gloire (Bunny invariably called her Glaw, and sometimes even Gaw) from Swanage. Bunny had been cruelly devastated by that, and was still subject to fits of intense melancholy, effectively stranded as she was alone in Halkidiki, because the thought of returning to noisy and lacklustre Birmingham, much less the flat and featureless Norfolk countryside aged 67 and without a partner, just seemed too bleak to contemplate. She and Reg stayed friends nonetheless, and by way of amends he did much gratis work on her house with its lovely harbour view. Bunny took hundreds of photos on her phone of Reg’s masterly renovations, at every possible stage, and put them on her little laptop notebook and showed them to everyone she met, total strangers included, who might or might not be interested, including myself for that remarkably protracted weekend at the tail end of 2013.

“See here,” she said, quite possibly for the fourth time that Sunday afternoon. “Where he put in these lovely new windows for me. I’ve never seen such patience and such perfectionism. I expect that’s why I followed him all the way to Greece, because he was so patient and because he was always trying to be so blinking perfect.”

Home movies so to speak, weren’t Bunny’s only abiding passion. She was obsessed with her health as she had been diagnosed as diabetic, and so she had obtained a little machine for measuring her blood sugar that she took everywhere and employed ceaselessly. Just as I confuse Trudi with Bunny, in part because they visited me in successive weekends, in part because they had rather similar and disabling health issues, so I also helplessly confuse Bunny’s little notebook laptop containing Reg’s wonderful patios and doors and windows, with her charming little blood sugar reader. She needed to make a minute prick on her finger for the blood sample, and as she measured her glucose levels about every hour of wakefulness, that meant she was fearlessly lancing herself around sixteen times a day and dolefully informing me of the awesome reading.

“Gor, look at that,” she sighed. “Just look at that! And it wasn’t anything like that an hour ago. Tell you what, let’s test it again in half an hour and see if there’s any change, should we? It’s one way of us getting close I suppose, you taking an interest in my health. That’s why regular monitoring is so crucial you see? My doctor in Halkidiki is so impressed by my reams and reams of figures.”

It was never a wholly reassuring glucose reading, the best it could be was better than bad, and quite often it was just plain bad, and she needed to swallow some expensive medication. To take her and no doubt my mind off her affliction, she would switch seamlessly to gizmo 2 and whizz on to photo 209 which indicated Reg taking a break from his arduous labours and drinking a can of Alfa beer. He was surrounded by a ton of shattered masonry and the words Barney Rubble went irrelevantly and irreverently through my head. I could almost hear Barry Manilow crooning I Did It My Way in the background.

Unlike the chatty and inevitably forgettable emails that Bunny and I exchanged, Trudi and I swapped increasingly passionate ones in the month before she arrived.  She was divorced from a Hamburg architect called Dietrich who she described as the last word in glacial calm and emotionless ultra-rationality, a case of borderline autism as she saw it now in retrospect. Perhaps, she reflected, she had married her mother, another unbelievably unfeeling soul, who had dispatched her to a Swiss boarding school not so much for its educational excellence but because she had no time for children and especially not for Trudi. In the school holidays, she was regarded simply as an unwelcome nuisance, and her mother tirelessly belittled her, mocking her adolescent puppy fat especially, and she was also prone to sullen rages and even to hitting her daughter painfully when it suited her. Her Dad never touched her but he was weak and feebly imitative, so that although he was very fond of his only child, he somehow thought he had to join in the parental teasing, or if he didn’t he might have been betraying his redoubtable wife. The mockery was facetious in his case, whereas his wife would talk about stitching Trudi’s mouth up to stop her pigging herself and thereby turning into a literal pig. Instead her Dad would tell her gleefully that her teenage backside was way too big, like a kind of outsize wienerschniztel, and neither parent seemed to note the irony that they were both patently overweight themselves, with shapeless and virtually indistinguishable bourgeois and bone idle Sitzfleisch.

When Trudi arrived off the boat I was impressed by her striking height and subtly mobile shoulders of all things, and what I associated with them, as her humorous directness, easy friendliness and natural confidence. She was a sturdy and effortlessly imposing woman, and she was also very attractive. That said, she looked much more French than German, with vivid red lipstick and a generous and quaintly forgiving sort of smile. She could have been a zestful Parisian café manager or a bohemian fashion magnate, and I led her to my favourite café where she took an ouzo and the fishermen and labourers were impressed by her very good Greek and her unfussy and unforeign ways. She had another two ouzos and looked as if she would have happily sat there all night, but I had made her an elaborate dinner of South Indian cuisine: banana curry with coriander, dhal with nutmeg, raita with dates and mangos, beetroot rice with chilis and curry leaves. She tucked into it with great relish and we drank white wine and afterwards I could not restrain myself but walked round the table and hugged her tenderly and possessively. At that she started and looked oddly askance, at which precise point the vivid crimson lipstick made her seem oddly and hallucinatingly malign. She did not put it into words but I sensed in a trice that she found manifest tenderness a very awkward motif and even mildly contemptible. There was the nightmare sadistic mother who had scorned her and frequently beaten her, and the nigh autistic husband who had continually frozen her, and thus open and demonstrative affection for Trudi was something almost lethal in its strangeness.

A couple of hours later we were sat there in bed, when she cleared her throat and announced:

“There is something that you need to know.”

Her voice was calm enough, effectively sage and resigned, and I did not feel alarmed.

“I’m sorry to say I have chronic, severe and seemingly permanent cystitis. There, I’ve told you, and that’s it in a nutshell. I’ve had it for years, in fact a decade now. The Athens doctor says it is incurable, though that could be just his autopilot Greek pessimism.”

I mused, then frowned, and finally stroked her fine brown hair protectively.

“That’s a bastard. My poor wife had cystitis in her early thirties and it was always hell for her. She had to drink gallons and gallons of water.”

Trudi sniffed with a kind of resentful fatigue.

“It makes any kind of lovemaking far from easy. If it was just an occasional affliction it would be very different, but as it is permanent it is like a plague or a curse.”

I stared at the pair of us in the mirror opposite. We both looked the picture of radiant health so that her cystitis sounded like a joke or a fantasy, and not an overwhelming fact.

After a long meditation, I said, “I’m trying to think through the options. Ordinary lovemaking is painful obviously. And does that also apply to any intimate caresses administered in the area of…?”

She nodded bleakly. “I’m afraid so. It drives me bloody crazy, because I have all the desire and I want to make love like a fucking demon.”

I stared at myself, and especially at my reflected nipples, with a certain amount of incredulity, as I tried to ruminate with a more cogent focus.

“There’s one thing I can think of that doesn’t involve the usual area, but another and perhaps a rather controversial area. You might not like it, and I’ve never tried it myself, and indeed I might not like it either…”

She snorted: “You’re right, I wouldn’t like that. I’m completely open minded in principle, but in practice I’m an uptight, middle class and super-hygienic gnadiges Fraulein.”

I confided in a neutral anecdotal tone, “The Greeks call it storming the castle.”

“They would the dirty bastards! They bloody well would! Castle my arse.”

I sighed and concurred. “Yes, you’ve hit the nail on the head. So then Trudi, what are the working options from your point of view?”

She smiled triumphantly and said that there was massage oil and she had brought a large bottle along, just in case it was unobtainable on the island. I perked up at that, rather like a hopeful terrier, and she looked at me sternly and laid down the specialist ground rules pertaining to one like her who had her singular Gothic developmental history and now its obvious somatic manifestation of a permanent urinary infection. First of all, the massage must be done in total darkness as she did not like to seen naked for any length of time. When I protested that she looked beautiful and her sumptuous nudity was a joy to behold, she scowled sure, sure, but that is not what I was brought up to feel or to know or to live in the flesh that is mine.

“Point taken. And I think I’m following you so far.”

But she sounded like a petulant headmistress or a no nonsense nurse as she went on:

“You must concentrate exclusively on one very small place only!”

I could, she expatiated tersely, have massaged every part of her body if I was that way inclined, and had all the time in the world. But that was a blatant waste of energy and resources, as a single square centimetre at the base of the spine and just above the cleft of her bottom, right here, right here, you see, was where all her most potent and voluptuous ecstasy was sited. She took my finger and placed it at that tiny and precise point, and said it must be connected to symbolic Chinese energy centres as in acupuncture, or maybe there was some significant Tantric yoga analogy.

I invite you now as paradigm neutral observer to use your imagination and consider my extraordinary position. You are in bed with a German woman with big and beautiful and powerful shoulders and blazing red lipstick, and she has told you that you have to apply some sticky oil in the overwhelming pitch dark to only one square centimetre of her body and to that alone. With the light on it would have been a piece of cake, but Trudi would not even permit a candle, not even the tiniest one with the feeble glimmer of the birthday kind. And of course, I couldn’t see a damn thing inside the bedroom as there was no street lighting outside, and I kept missing the target and splattering dabs of oil all over her back and her behind and her delectable thighs, and not getting anywhere near that magical square centimetre.

No! No no! Not there. No. Doh!

Yes yes, that’s it! That’s wonderful! Now I really want you inside of me. But I can’t fucking have you inside of me, because of the cys-fucking- titis! I want you inside of me so much, but I can’t because it’s too painful Because it’s always bloody agony.

 A week later Bunny Shotover, who as she walked off the boat looked exactly like a shy little glum little English owl that was palpably out of place being well away from its nesting grounds here in sultry Mediterranean Greece, turned to me in the bedroom and said:

“Listen to me. There’s something I have to tell you.”

I almost thought she was an ouzo loving German translator and a fan of great operas.

“Yes, Truebunny.”

“You what?”

“What is it you have you to tell me, Bunny?”

“Ah well. It’s me and my blooming old health again! Six months ago I had a major operation for a prolapsed womb.”

“Oh my God,” I choked, then. “Oh dear me. That doesn’t sound very nice, Bunny.”

“The overall upshot,” she said as if she were talking about the accelerating price of new potatoes, “is that I now have no sex drive whatever. Not a flicker of interest at all. None whatsoever. Mm. That’s me for you.”

I blurted helplessly, oh my steaming fu, and then came to an expert halt.

“Do you mind about that? Do you? It’s not that important, is it?”

“Isn’t it? I thought…”

“Nah. Not at our age. Me 67, you 63. Lots of other things to enjoy at our age.”

“Are there?”

“Oh yes. For example, all that great music you get 24/7 on the radio. Not blooming clanky Greek stuff, but Radio 2 online, it’s a true godsend, it keeps me sane and away from the brink.  Then there’s the challenge of jigsaws, another life saver, the harder the better. Then there’s good old Scrabble. Then dear old patience. Then nice old puzzle books. Then crosswords as long as they ain’t those cryptic blighters.”

“I can see where you’re coming from. Jigsaws are better than sex?”

Suddenly she looked comically perturbed and owllike hooted. “Look at us two! Just look. Cor.”

I said that in fact I was looking, for I was gawking at us with some pained disbelief in the mirror opposite. There, I observed, I was sat up in bed with an old and blinking Barn Owl who was contentedly doing without sex and who loved Sir Terry Wogan on Radio 2 and who relished joining all the five hundred enigmatic little cardboard bits of Holyrood Palace or of Lake Windermere or of the Taj Mahal or and most taxing of all, of Battersea Power Station.

“I don’t mean look at us in the mirror. I mean look at the pair of us not taking my blood sugar for a least an hour! What are we like, you and me?”

“As long as that? Doesn’t time fl…”

Bunny smirked and looked at me then, as if she were about to offer something far more precious than even the most tantalising part of her fetching body. She smiled at me seductively and coyly lisped:

“How about this? For a change would you like to take this little implement here, and would you like to do the pricking?”

AND THEN SHE WENT BERSERK (a short story)

The next post will be on or before Monday 5th June

AND THEN SHE WENT BERSERK ( a short story)

Author’s note. This is the third short story I’ve published in 10 days, having written no stories at all for 25 years. I realise now they are all about unusual women, one of whom, Natasha,you could call a genuinely free spirit

Maria who was half Sicilian and half Greek, was one of those people who do not understand personal boundaries, and even though she was a very intelligent woman, and even if you had explained at discursive length what you meant by it, she would have tossed her very dark hair and nodded her handsome Mediterranean head with a vehement irony and scorned your oh so lacklustre initial premises. As a born matriarch, Maria found it all too natural to guide, boss, bully and direct others, as not to do so would be perversely to neglect them and indeed do them a gross disservice and leave them to the chill winds of inhospitable and glacial social politeness, the kind of thing that is taken for normal in large parts of the understated and far too unfeeling UK for example. Thus it was in the space of two days as we went round Athens, she reproved me numerous times for tipping the taxi drivers and said they were mostly feckless Albanians on the make who didn’t know where half of the city was anyway. She was even less impressed by my giving money to beggars, and insisted that they were all in the control of organised criminals, so that the money wouldn’t go into the hands of the sweet little Balkan girl I had just given a euro, but some callous gypsy trafficker or Moldovan drug dealer or the like. Finally, one evening she refused point blank to try out one of those impressively cheap Indian restaurants in the grimier back streets around Omonia, for she said in all seriousness you would be lucky to come out alive, it was risking your life to hang out there by night. I snorted and stopped in my tracks to hear this extraordinary statement, and looked at her with irony.

I said, “You really believe that we’d end up dead just by going in one of those restaurants? According to you they’re only waiting to slit our throats, meaning that when we go in to order prawn biryani or vegetable thali or the Set Meal for Two, they are overcome by an immense irrational loathing of two liberal westerners like ourselves, and decide to do us in forthwith?”

She sniffed and was not a whit abashed, sternly emphasising that she knew Athens back to front and I didn’t, and as testimonial she did two days a week voluntary work with immigrant and refugee groups, so she knew exactly what she was talking about.

I first met Maria a decade ago when she was one of my students at an Oxford summer school. She was 50 years old and was doing a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing at a place I shall anonymise as UNWG, the University of North West Gloucestershire. Her fellow students were half her age, all in their mid-twenties, and her tutor was a benign and smiling 60-year-old poet called Tass Wilmslow (I believe that Tass is short for Terence) who had published no fiction at all, which was what Maria wrote exclusively, and in a foreign language at that. In essence she was trying to do what gifted Greek authors like Stratis Haviaras and Panos Karnezis have done, which is to write in their adopted tongue of English, and the parallel is particularly interesting in Haviaras’s case as the former Harvard Poetry Library Curator wrote about the same subject matter that Maria was attempting in her first novel. Haviaras who was born in 1935, was the son of a Greek leftist who was murdered by the Nazis during World War Two, and Haviaras himself, as the offspring of a radical pariah, at the age of 12 embarked on working an incredible twenty years as an Athens building labourer. His formative years were during the Greek Civil War, and thus it was he knew all about the notorious prison islands where many leftists were incarcerated, and which he fictionalised in the remarkable novel The Heroic Age. During that week at Oxford, Maria showed me her own prison novel which was obviously drawn from her imagination and from secondary sources, if only because she was born in 1958, a decade after the height of the civil war. I read about fifty pages of it and saw that it was full of grammatical and syntactical errors, meaning that even though her spoken English was very good, she was no Haviaras nor Karnezis when it came to imaginative composition. Quite simply it read as if written by a foreigner who didn’t know the written language in its myriad nuances and its infinite subtleties. Over and above that, the flavour of her novel was oddly one of unconvincing wishful thinking. Her island incarcerates were all staunch and doughty and cheery and full of free-spirited banter about rather witless things like a certain elderly comrade’s flatulence, which was certainly not the case in the bleakly authentic The Heroic Age, that is partly set in a fictional prison island called Kalamos (not the real one that is part of the Lefkada archipelago). Had this been the only thing Maria had shown me, rather than wholly demoralise her, I would have been kind and gingerly and suggested it needed editorial work here, there and perhaps a bit there…but as she showed me something else that was radically different and that I believed to be actually very good, I was candid about what I saw as her unpublishable prison opus.

“Maria, I just don’t think you have the technical means to write a conventionally structured novel in English. You’ll save yourself a hell of a lot of wasted effort and frustration if you focus on these excellent little stories.”

There were about a dozen of them and they were not in fact stories, but highly incendiary mostly 500-word prose poems. They were all first person, obviously autobiographical, and all lyrical effusions of anger, invocation, condemnation, shame, loneliness, confusion, despair, desire. They were more or less uncategorizable, but aside from a few small errors of syntax, they were brilliantly written and they were straight from the heart, and above all they were not to be shown to the weak or the cosseted or the easily shocked. It was perhaps because I was so positive and partisan about these fearless and moving cries from her heart, that Maria took my condemnation of the novel on the chin and went away singing from the tutorial. A few months later she wrote to me from NW Gloucs to say that Tass Wilmslow and his colleagues had awarded her a starred MA and had hugely praised the prison island novel which she admitted she had scarcely touched since Oxford. However, Tass and the other examiners, including external ones, had expressed alarmed incomprehension apropos the prose poems and had urged her to put them on the back boiler. I wrote back congratulating her on her success and condoling with her for their myopic if predictable reaction. But rather than spoil things, I didn’t bother to reiterate the inadequacy of the prison novel now that Tass and her fellow students were extolling it. Tass the sinecured pedagogue who had never written a line of prose in his life, with that permanent silk-screened smile was clearly incapable of recognising something new under the sun, meaning despite his 40K a year, he couldn’t tell shit from sugar, and by default preferred something borderline illiterate as long as it was studiously innocuous.

Maria’s biography, as she revealed it to me throughout the Oxford week and in the numerous emails that followed, was intense, sometimes violent and occasionally grotesque. Her Dad was an impoverished immigrant Sicilian married to an Athenian teacher and he was both loving and fiercely possessive, and had sometimes used his fists upon her when she was a teenager. However, the considerable problem was that Maria had a penchant to romance and exaggerate if it made an impressive story, so I never quite knew what to believe and what to strain at so to speak. Years ago she emailed that she had just gone for a laser operation on her eyes, and incredibly the idiot ophthalmologist had answered his mobile phone while he was supposed to be focusing scrupulously on her retina, and so, she warned me, she might end up half blind, possibly worse as a result. Once I had commiserated and expressed my horror, there was no further mention of the incident, and when I met her later in Athens there was no sign whatever of any optical problems, and indeed she could read a city clock from half a mile off. Moreover, Maria also claimed she was prey to all kinds of disabling conditions, so legion in fact, that I eventually lost count. She listed them with a boastfully tragic air, for she was prone to severe migraines, was diabetic, had high blood pressure and excess cholesterol, was afflicted with something that was not the chronic fatigue syndrome ME, but very much like and easily confused with it, and even more viciously pernicious, and she was one of only five people in the whole of the Balkans to have it. She talked of lying down for whole afternoons in her Athens flat as she was too weak and too afflicted to do otherwise, the curtains drawn and only the plangent sound of Vassilis Tzitzanis’s bouzouki on her hifi to console her. And as an example of a wholly pointless fabrication, she assured me that week in Oxford that Stratis Haviaras and Vangelis Xatziyannidis (who wrote a stunning novel, Four Walls, about a honey manufacturer on an unnamed island, brutally kidnapped for his priceless recipe) were now in charge of the new Creative Writing Department at Florina University near Thessaloniki. In point of fact there is no such department at Florina and never has been, and if you search the staff lists from end to end you will fail to find those two illustrious writers also.

Meanwhile Maria was a handsome, and, disabling ailments notwithstanding, very hardworking woman, a freelance editor as well as a writer. She was, in the most auspicious circumstances, and especially in that week at Oxford, very funny and irreverent and entertaining. But she had had chronic bad luck with all her men, and at 55, when I last met her, was without a boyfriend or any kind of admirer other than her besotted and chainsmoking German lodger Ruprecht, of whom I shall speak more later. She had married young at 20 in 1978, to an electrician called Kostas Dinos who she explained was outlandishly obese. She never explained why she had chosen an enormously fat husband, unless perhaps it was some corrupt and demeaning mirror image of herself, for Maria was an attractively ample woman if decidedly not a fat one, though she was morbidly self-conscious about her size and said she did not like to be seen naked by anyone.

She was married to Kostas for a decade when tragedy struck, and in the most dramatic and appalling way. They were making love one night when he took a massive heart attack and died in her arms. In her arms right enough, but he was flat on top of her, and at 21 stones she was unable to lift up his spectacular corpse and get from underneath his terrifying bulk. She was hideously pinioned by what felt like an elephant, which dead as it was, seemed deliberately and malevolently to be squeezing the life out of her. She had to scream her lungs out an inordinately long time, for the neighbours to come and rescue her, and amazingly one of the couples brought along their dozy ten year-old son and you can imagine what it was like having an open-mouthed and querulous kid contemplating you lying there farcically steamrollered and asking his equally gormless Mum what had Kostas and Maria been doing in such a strange and inexplicably naked wrestling posture?

She returned to Athens in 2009, and was greatly impressed when I moved to a Cycladean island four years layer. After a few months, she invited me to stay a weekend at her place in Monastiraki, and as it was close to Christmas she suggested we could do some seasonal shopping together. I brought her presents of aloe vera hand cream and other cosmetics and that first night I took her out for a slap up Indian meal along Ermou. We had exchanged hundreds of emails but my only time in her company had been a single week in Oxford when she was vivacious, high-spirited and at times uproarious, so reasonably enough I was expecting more of the same. She seemed bright enough to start with, but there were signs of what was to come as we sat down and carelessly ordered far more dishes than we would ever eat. We were sitting outside because Maria like her German lodger chainsmoked, as do a great many Greek women, and there were those portable brazier style heaters which hissed away musically as we talked. At one point, I decided to sample the yoghurt raita I’d ordered, and as usual this not being a British curry house, it had no added spices, only a bit of grated onion. I pulled a face and stopped the Greek waitress and politely asked her to get the chef to put some spice in it, and it was at this juncture that Maria first poked her authoritarian nose in.

“No!” she said, more or less commanding the young woman not to do what I had asked. “Surely the Indian chefs know what they are doing with their Indian dishes, and it is certainly not for us two to tell them what to do?”

I looked at her bemused and snorted, “Us? It’s nothing to do with you, Maria, it’s me who’s kicking up. I’m not paying seven euros for a massive bowl of yoghurt with not a hint of spice in it. Raita means spiced yoghurt, and it isn’t spiced so therefore it’s not bloody raita.”

Both Maria and her trembling cigarette were bridling and she was set to start a vigorous counterattack. I shrugged then turned sharply to the puzzled little waitress.

“A bit of cumin, a bit of chili, and a sprinkle of mint, of diasmos. I would like it to taste of something other than yoghurt, that’s all I’m asking…”

Maria was fuming and about to countermand all that, but scenting an imminent major scene the young girl shot off and did as she was bidden.

I said, “Before you start Maria. If this was a Greek restaurant and they’d not made skordalia for your grilled cod, or anything else were to fall short, you’d be the first to bawl them out and order them to do exactly what you wanted.”

She flushed and was itching to argue the point, but luckily there was a distraction when some customers brought in a handsome little toy dog and sat it down at their table. Maria, being dog-daft, swept over with no little extravagant theatre, and cooed and kissed it, carefully holding her cigarette away from little Fifi’s sensitive and twitching eyes. Later as we walked back to her flat, she told me mordantly about her last four years and I filled her in on mine and the painful aftermath of my wife dying.  Maria’s domestic situation was complicated as despite regularly pleading poverty she had substantial assets, and owned an attractive flat nearby and a house further out on the coast at Vouliagmeni. She received a hefty rent for the flat and currently had 70 year-old Ruprecht there for a whole month. Why a retired German who spent the rest of the year in Mannheim, would want to spend a month in Athens in late November I never discovered, unless it was that he was timidly in love with Maria, which fantasy she patently did nothing to discourage. He had been there in her own house when I first arrived, and she had flirted with him shamelessly, then watched him bristle and blush and show every sign of maudlin doting. Ruprecht was currently going through a minor crisis as his daughter Brigitte who lived in Berlin and from whom he was severely alienated, had just given birth to his first grandchild, and he’d only found out about it from his sister Hanna to whom Brigitte was still close. So Ruprecht had had to send his congratulations via a third party and kept emailing Hanna to ask if there had been any response to his felicitations. Nothing so far and he was clearly walking on pins. Maria merely shrugged, when in the restaurant I suggested she was leading him on and she might end up with a problem on her hands. Besides, she sniffed, his teeth were in a dreadful state and his breath was utterly poisonous. Nothing would ever happen mit dem alten komischen Ruprecht, not even a kiss, much less a feigned embrace.

The next day we went Christmas shopping together, and to start with it was pleasantly relaxed and light hearted. Maria made very apt and sensitive suggestions about antique jewellery for my girlfriend and the best silver ear rings for my daughter. I bought myself much-needed denims at Athens M and S, and she deliberated sternly and made me try on four pairs before giving me the thumbs up. Nevertheless, it was a long and fatiguing day as we traipsed around, and add to that a few inconsequential but burning niggles about my giving money to every beggar we saw. By about 4 o’ clock we were both exhausted and direly in need of a drink. I also needed the bathroom urgently, and at her suggestion we plonked down outside a juice bar, and this was where an unheralded and indeed unfathomable explosion happened. It was all my fault apparently, but all I did was say in a reflective voice that had nil hint whatever of personal criticism much less any all-purpose scepticism:

“I suppose this place mightn’t have a toilet, Maria? It’s very small and a lot of juice bars don’t.”

With that meek little utterance, it was as if somehow I had committed the gravest sacrilege, Maria being some pitiless and wrathful albeit obscure demi-goddess. Her eyes flared burning daggers and then she shook and roared at full lung power, and yes, I do mean roared, I do not mean anything like she expostulated or she riposted.

“Aren’t you aware,” she bawled so violently that my orange juice danced and every single customer at every table about us, turned and took a leisured scrutiny, “that I know absolutely everything there is to know about every single café in the middle of Athens? And therefore it is a gratuitous insult for you to insinuate otherwise! My mother’s family have lived here for over 300 years, meaning that our knowledge is legendary and encyclopaedic. Meaning also that if I choose a café that I think has a toilet, then it will have a bloody toilet, end of story…”

This hurricane or should I say terrorist bomb blast had come ex nihilo and from nowhere, and had happened to quickly I was at first quite paralysed with disbelief. Then I looked at all the squinting Greek fizzogs enjoying this all too Greek conflagration and I shouted back at her in a fury:

“Don’t you dare rant at me in public like that! Where on earth do you get your fucking nerve? And who the hell do you think you are, you bloody fool, to bawl at people like that?”

All of which might have had some searing pungence and provided a necessary catharsis for the splenetic Englishman who was her treasured weekend guest, had a nearby Kawasaki 900 motorbike not revved up at deafening volume and drowned out what he’d said. Maria saw me mouthing my angry words but not being a lip reader heard nothing at all. By the time the racket had finished and I had doggedly repeated my threat it had nothing like the same vehemence nor punitive indignation. I stalked off swearing to take my piss, and when I got back found her looking suitably distant but not at all antagonistic. All outward signs were that she had forgotten that humiliating public excoriation and I suddenly reflected that those incendiary prose poems of hers were original and brilliant things, but clearly indicated a soul that was a furious melting pot of thwarted passions, shattered hopes and blistered dreams. To be sure she was not another Arthur Rimbaud, but neither with Maria Dinos nor the volatile Frenchman would you wish to share a month’s close quarters self-catering on a tiny and sparsely populated Greek island, be it ever so atmospheric and even if the weather be tremulously perfect.

Things blew over and on the way back, we dropped in at the flat she had let to Ruprecht. While the new if poignantly unacknowledged grandad gazed beatifically at his enchanting Greek landlady, Maria proudly showed me round and indeed it was beautifully furnished with tasteful Impressionist prints and batiked weavings and wall to wall bookshelves full of the best cosmopolitan literature.

“It’s lovely,” I said sincerely. “It’s exquisite and it’s lovely. Congratulations, Maria.”

She smiled with almost a shy appreciation, but then looking with some masonic code to Ruprecht and his amazingly nicotined fingers, she confirmed that he too needed a cigarette as their last one had been a good five minutes ago. They went out together on the balcony and left me to the chromatic splendour of the sumptuous flat. I glanced curiously through her books, many of them in English, then decided to go out and tell her about my shopping plans for tomorrow. What I beheld there was eccentrically charming, but also very comical. The balcony was very narrow and not very long, with only just room for two canvas chairs. Maria in typically incontinent mode had swamped every inch with pot plants, some of which had lofty and obscuring foliage, and the general impression was of a kind of sultry miniature hothouse in Kew Gardens transposed to noisy Monastiraki. As perfectly crazy touch the two smokers were creating an enormous fug that mingled with the plants and more or less obliterated the talkative Hellenic landlady and her enamoured Teutonic tenant. I could only just make out their faces through the creepers, fuschias, cactuses and choking Gauloises fumes, so without a second thought I jovially commented:

“De Quincey’s Opium Den! That’s just what you two are like together…”

And that was that, or so I thought. They were so busy chatting and smoking I assumed they hadn’t heard me, or if they had, had smiled at that inconsequential little jest. Soon after Maria and I walked the five minutes to her place, where I started telling her about my efforts to learn Greek and especially the whole month I had spent trying to read Papadiamantis’s Christmas Tales. The grand old man who was an islander, not an Athenian, wrote in a difficult 19th century Greek, full of Skiathos dialect and with his own version of the purified katharevousa language. At which point Maria mentioned something about his haunting classic The Murderess and stated something diametrically at odds with what I’d read in the Peter Levi English translation many years earlier, apropos its unique language. I did not contradict her, much less mock her specialist knowledge as a trained linguist, but simply quoted what the eminent Greek scholar had written in his introduction. Then behold a reprise, a petrifying déjà vu, as my volatile host took outraged umbrage and in the same day that she’d imitated a prima donna volcano outside the Omonia juice bar, bellowed at me from less than a yard away:

“I just happen to have a summa cum laude PhD in Greek Linguistics from Athens university! Don’t you think I know what I am fucking talking about when it comes to fucking Papadiamantis?”

At this point I started to feel substantial even dizzy fatigue. I was in the company of someone who repeatedly took colossal offence about nothing, and whose pride in her metropolitan ancestry and her PhD must not be slighted by even the remotest hint of disagreement or healthy debate. She hadn’t been like this four years ago when she had been fun and wild and incendiary, but the present reality was her only reality alas. I snapped back and said I’d only been quoting another eminent scholar, not in any way contradicting her. In any case, true scholars were always up for nuanced dialectic and for measured debate, and anyone who took histrionic offence about someone else’s opinions was surely not a true scholar.

She shuffled heavily in her chair and looked at me slyly.

“Forget about that. I hope you realise that you gave great offence to someone else today, not just myself! Ruprecht was very upset when you talked so nastily about opium dens. As if to say that he and I were like a pair of bloody opium addicts!”

I stared at her incredulous, then guffawed.

“You’re lying, Maria! That really is absolute nonsense. You might well have taken offence because these days you take offence at the sun for shining through the window or at the birds for flying in the air. But Ruprecht couldn’t give a damn about my harmless little joke.”

She ignited her third cigarette of the last ten minutes, then fluted:

“It wasn’t funny at all. It was deeply insulting.”

I scowled at her, and pointed out it could only have been a jest, because neither Ruprecht nor she would ever conceivably have entered an opium den much less smoked the exotic narcotic. The only thing they smoked to excess was lethal cigarettes and tonight they had been buried in billows of  fumes among a riotous jungle garden on that little balcony. That was funny to behold, and my comment was simply innocuous metaphor. Then, exasperated by her stonewall piety and suddenly inspired, I said, supposing instead that she, Maria, in high spirits had burst into the sitting room from the balcony to give me a comical shock, and that I had laughed and said to her she had come in like a bat out of hell. Only a lunatic would imagine I meant that she was a literal bat (though in fact, and ironically, I really did think she was one) nor that she had come from a literal Hell. Nobody but a humourless crackpot would take offence at my harmless little joke, in the same way that Maria had turned apoplectic about the debatable existence of juice bar piss houses and Papadiamantis’s linguistic complexities. Maria was as touchy as a haughty Ottoman sultan or that ancient Moroccan sheikh Moulay Ismail who would regularly decapitate his cowering servants just because he had got out of bed the wrong side (metaphor again, Maria, it wasn’t literally the wrong side of his bed).

“I’m telling you that Ruprecht was deeply offended.”

“And I’m saying that you’re lying your arse off, and that once upon a time you were a likeable and entertaining woman, and that these days you seem to be a first class nutcase. For example, it really matters to you, in fact it’s a matter of life and death, that your ancestors have been infallible experts on Athens coffee shop piss houses for the last 300 years. Tell that to your shrink the next time you see her Maria, and ask her what she thinks. Likewise, you jealously treasure your lofty linguistics PhD and your omniscience may not be assailed, nor may other authorities even be mentioned in your presence. As a result you are rather like something out of the madder pages of Dostoievsky, though without the entertainment value.”

But she only had the one note by now as she dirgelike murmured:

“You upset poor Ruprecht. That is a fact.”

I decided to stop all vacillation as that impregnable neurotic armour of hers could only be penetrated by something like concentrated sulphuric acid.

“You have to be kidding, koritsi mou! Ruprecht has far greater problems than your weekend visitor’s contentious turns of phrase. He has a daughter won’t talk to him, and a beautiful new grandchild he might never ever see. Meanwhile he is in simpering thrall to you, and the only thing he thinks about and it is nothing to do with opium dens, is getting inside your knickers, Maria. You flirt with him shamelessly and relentlessly and the poor bastard thinks he has a chance in hell. My trifling little de Quincey jest is therefore as nothing in Ruprecht’s doleful little universe.”

I then stated the obvious which was that this weekend with her was a groaning disaster and it had got to the stage that I was frightened of opening my mouth to say anything, just in case it gave offence. Unfortunately, I said drily, there was no boat to the island tomorrow but I certainly wouldn’t be staying with her any longer. I had spotted a likely cheap hotel in Psirri that afternoon and in late November it would surely have umpteen vacancies. I was therefore off and away from here, as of now.

She looked at me in genuine surprise and God knows why began to thank me for all the sympathetic and generous presents I’d brought her and the delicious and expensive Indian meal of last night.

“You’re welcome, “I said coldly. “I really wish it were otherwise, and I admit it’s been a shock to me. At the moment, I’m afraid to say I find you quite unbearable, Maria. Maybe in another five years perhaps.”

She stirred enigmatically in her chair and lit yet another cigarette. For the first time, I noticed that her fingers were also discoloured by nicotine and that it certainly looked far from pretty.

“But Ruprecht really was terribly upset.”

SOULMATES (a short story)

The next post will be on or before Thursday 1st June

SOULMATES (a short story)

Author’s note. After a 25 year sabbatical from the short story I have published no less than 2 within a week. If anyone understands why that might be (I certainly don’t) please write to me at  johnrmurray857@gmail.com 

That first night I made Lidia some qar machh bi lubiya which is a Tunisian dish of baked courgettes stuffed with kidney beans and tomatoes flavoured with harissa and caraway. It is hot, flavoursome and aromatic and she praised it and obviously liked it, but she consumed it remarkably slowly and with a sedulously rotating mouth, her eyes tight shut the whole time, as if following some instruction from a New Age meditation guru. I don’t normally consort with people who  solemnly masticate with their eyes closed, and who obviously treat eating as a significant spiritual experience. As for myself I knock back my food with matter of fact gusto and relish, and I suppose both of those nouns are rarely to be found in the mouths of Alternative Practitioners and their adherents. A few days later Lidia would articulate her considerable hostility to my manner of eating, and would evidence a second New Age fascination which would lead, to my surprise, to an explosive confrontation. But for the moment we got on very well, and there was manifest tender affection between us, and as she intended staying for a full 3 weeks it was a very good job there was.

Lidia was Portuguese and was from beautiful Viana do Castelo, a town I have visited on three occasions, the last time being some 15 years ago. It is above Porto, the capital of the north, and Lidia owned a large and sumptuous villa right next to the beach on the windy Costa Verde coast. She was 58 years old, divorced and retired on a handsome pension for she had been a top executive with a Porto IT firm. That had been her day job so to speak, for her real interests were literary and philosophical (her two idols being Friedrich Nietzsche and Soren Kierkegaard) and she also had a Master’s Degree in anthropology from Lisbon University. As soon as she saw my detailed profile she immediately ordered all my books and this was before she had made any contact at all, meaning that memorable first email that started with the comical and endearing:

Hey! Look at me! 

I did look at her photo and she was very attractive, and as she explained that she’d ordered all 8 of my novels, including one long out of print and collectable, and which would set her back £100, I was obviously very flattered. She had read all of them within a fortnight, and wrote to proclaim me an indubitable genius and indeed another James Joyce. I wrote back and thanked her but said I was no matchless prose master alas. As far as I was concerned, I knew better than anyone else in the world precisely how talented I was and exactly how bad I was. At my best I was pretty good and at my worst very slovenly and occasionally unspeakable. She passionately demurred and insisted she understood me better than myself and to a certain extent she clearly saw herself as my interpreter and wisest guiding spirit. I was the hapless if lovable idiot savant and she was a kind of sapient midwife or patron who understood what was beyond my Great Artist’s all too typical myopia.

Lidia arrived off the boat wearing an alluring and expensive ski jacket and was surprisingly small to behold. She was short and dark haired and had a decidedly poetic face and also a look of subtle deprivation. She was divorced from Tomas Quintanilha, another retired Porto executive, and he, she told me, had made a bad remarriage, so that both he and petulant overweight Isabel were chronically dissatisfied with their lives together. Thus it was they regularly came to Lidia for counselling and consolation, and even just the comfort of wine and her excellent food as well as something else that Lidia always called Santa Maria, and which I will come to later. She also had two daughters in their late twenties, Alda who was a TV researcher and happily married, and Albertina who was single and  a busy vet in Ponte de Lima, but was sadly prone to disabling and mysterious depressions and who worried Lidia considerably as a result.

The first days together were a surprise and a delight and Lidia proved herself to be funny and anarchic and downright provocative at times. We took a taxi to north of Loutra and walked to the Kastro Tis Orias, a perfectly preserved 14th century Venetian fort stuck up a precipitous crag and with not a soul around apart from a few silent goats. We picnicked on tiropittas, red wine and pears and dark chocolate outside the little chapel with its huge bell that Lidia very much wanted to ring at full volume in the castle courtyard. We then surpassed ourselves on the way back and made a detour to tiny and lonely Ag Sostis chapel way out on the rough and barren headland behind the deserted beach.  Then we legged it the considerable way back to Loutra and in a cafe lingered over fresh orange juice.  At one point I needed the bathroom and Lidia made me laugh out loud by brazenly downing what was left of my juice while I was away. It was at least two thirds full and I caught her draining the last inch, and it was like the flagrant deviance of a lovable if naughty child. Lidia roared exultantly at me laughing at her and I looked at her and saw how possible it was to fall in love with a single and whimsical thing …her artless joy at her impudent theft, in this case.

Lidia was naturally generous and brought beguiling gifts with her. There was a hammock of all things, dark turquoise and a weaver’s masterpiece, and I had to get Bojan the Serbian handyman to knock up metal supports with massive bolts so she and I didn’t go flying onto the stone balcony. Needless to add, my cats would invariably claw our drooping and therefore tempting backsides should we dawdle there supine and meditative. Lidia also brought much excellent Portuguese booze in the form of vintage aguardente, medlar brandy (medroinho), and the delicious Licor Beirrao, a heavy and exotic liqueur with a faint taste of orange essence and something else unplaceable and thoroughly addictive. She was a moderate drinker herself but conspicuously a chainsmoker, and as that is so common among Greek and Portuguese women I scarcely noticed , and not having smoked at all for forty years, I decided to take it in my stride.

One day we took a taxi to one of the remotest beaches on the island and we had to disembark at the tiny chapel and walk the potholed dirt road down to the sparkling bay. There was not a soul around in low season, the half dozen holiday homes were all locked and bolted, not a car nor motorbike, nor even a cat were to be glimpsed. We beheld half a mile of perfect pebble-free sand, a radiant cobalt blue sea and I said to her in a mesmerised tone that it was like having died and woken up in paradise. Lidia smirkingly concurred as she took the initiative, walked over to a shady tree, stripped naked and invited me to do the same. I watched as she unearthed a bottle of massage oil from her handbag, sprawled upon her back and ordered me to apply it to every single inch. It was with the same peremptory provocation as when she’d pinched my orange juice and I smiled as I rubbed it into her breasts and tummy and she made some tender little groans. Then she turned onto her stomach and commanded the following massage sequence: first her ramrod neck and shoulders; then her slim and tapering back, and finally her sweetly puckered bottom which she declared to be an extremely sensitive one. Her shoulders right enough were rigid with tension and she whimpered faintly as I massaged away. I spent ages on her back until she grew impatient and moved my hand to her twitching and obviously expectant behind. I made the oil application there very lavish and she told me that that was like some ineffable magic. In her growing rapture, she started to hum a note or two of samba, then suddenly surprised me by taking my wrist and forcing me to slap her rather hard on her glistening backside.

“Aha,” I said, and then waited for her to explain.

She said enigmatically, “Oh yes, I deserve it.”

After some thought I agreed:“It is in fact condign punishment for stealing my juice in Loutra.”

She snorted and after three more self-inflicted spanks, she turned and grabbed me and kissed my tongue like a dozen mouths and a dozen women, so that in a few seconds we were to pass into a hot and sultry and very Aegean oblivion.

And yes, it was blissful so far, but things were about to turn. A few nights later I was making us a Middle Eastern feast, the centrepiece of which was an Iranian kookoo, a majestic 6 egg omelette, an egg cake in fact, that was filled with fried leeks, pistachios, fresh herbs, sultanas, allspice and which I decorated with pomegranate seeds so that it looked like a bejewelled and hallowed work of art. Lidia was visible on the sofa in the sitting room and as I glanced at her from time to time, I saw she was not only chainsmoking but biting her nails and looking restless and disconsolate. I could guess well enough why this was, and it was all down to Santa Maria. A few weeks ago, she’d asked me if I could get her some for the time she was on the island, and not having a clue what she meant, had to google it to discover it was one of a hundred jocular nicknames for hashish. I was unhappy with her bizarre request and answered that I didn’t want to do that errand at all, principally because smoking dope was looked on by most of the Greeks here as something comically pathetic. At the moment, I was liked and respected on the island, but if it got about I was asking round for hashish (there was no such thing as a secret here) I would be regarded as yet another oddball and an oddball foreigner to boot. Besides I hadn’t smoked any myself since 1972 and if one of us was stoned and the other wasn’t it would be a dissonant and discordant state of affairs would it not? And anyway, what was wrong with wine or gin or ouzo if it was simply about helping her to relax?

She had written back hurriedly and contritely, saying she was sorry and please to forget it, but tonight it was obvious she was twitching for a joint and could think of nothing else. Dope is not physiologically addictive of course, but it can be behaviourally so and I know folk in their sixties and seventies who simply cannot do without their adorable bedtime spliff. I was about to offer her a glass of Samos wine to settle her nerves, when she rose determinedly and came to where I was cooking.

“I’ve had an idea,” she announced with a faintly shifty look about her.

“Oh?”

The rest came out in extraordinary haste and as if she had been conscientiously rehearsing it for the last two hours.

“We are going to Syros for a few days, aren’t we? Ermopouli is a big town, you say, of about 30,000 people? Here is my plan. When we get there, how about I look around and see if I can spot anyone who looks as if they definitely smoke dope…?”

I felt myself bristling and for once it was not with desire.

“Then I simply go up and ask them to sell me some! Or to direct me to someone who can sell me some. Tell me. D’you think that’s a good idea?”

I stared at her, feeling quite dizzy. At first I was stupefied, then a little sorry for her, then finally very indignant, and even passing contemptuous. I scowled and pointed out the glaringly obvious. First of all, she knew no Greek at all and outside of high season, as it was now, almost no one on Syros talked English. Thus she would have to do some advanced and surreptitious mime when trying to score her Santa Maria, and that might just attract a little untoward attention. More to the point the person approached might just be an off-duty policeman or policewoman.

I concluded, “Then we’d both be up shit creek, Lidia. Wouldn’t we? Arrested and handcuffed in poor little Ermopouli.”

She pouted. “Oh come on. I really think you exaggerate!”

I snapped back, “I don’t think you think at all! At the moment, you really want your dope, you’re biting your nails, and that’s all that matters to you. And look, you’d better promise here and now not to try any scoring on Syros, or I’m simply not taking you there. End of story.”

At which point the meal was ready and still sulking she sat down and dolefully resumed her solemn rite of mastication. I watched her with her eyes closed in pseudo-samadhi, the diametric inverse of the chainsmoking and nail biting that is. I was very hungry and I tucked into the leek kookoo, the cauliflower tahina with cumin, the roast potatoes with oregano, the bulgur salad and the labna yoghurt with walnuts. But suddenly Lidia’s eyes flew open as if on springs, and she spat at me.

“You! You disrespect me!”

I paused my eating and blinked and even felt oddly carefree now that I was nine tenths convinced she was just one more cosmopolitan middle class nutcase, with far too much money and far too little sense.

“Oh? Disrespect? How would that be?”

She wagged her handsome Portuguese finger for emphasis.

“Because you eat like an animal! It’s quite revolting! You’ve seen how I eat my food very slowly every time, so you should therefore respect me and slow down to eat at my pace. Surely if we were in true sympathy with each other, we should finish the meal harmoniously together, at exactly the same time. But we don’t, and so you’re disrespecting me as far as I’m concerned.”

I blinked again, then suddenly laughed in her face.

“You don’t say? I think that that is rampant egocentricity of the highest order. You Lidia eat every meal with your eyes shut tight and at snail pace, like all those rich Europeans staying for an arm and a leg month in Rishikesh or at a mountain monastery in Nepal. That’s your choice and I don’t criticise it, but I’m damned if I’m going to do the same! What if I were to demand that you eat as fast as me and with your eyes wide open? How would you like that, d’you think?”

She blazed and snapped, “I’m telling you that you eat like an animal!”

I snarled back. “You are a caricature of a pampered Euro-Hindu, Lidia, meaning you are spectacularly short on self-knowledge. Aren’t you the same woman who smokes in bed late at night, puffs cigarettes in the small hours, and then more fags first thing when I make us coffee, about a dozen a night in all. I can just about stomach that, though most non-smokers wouldn’t. But guess what else? You stub your cigarettes out not in the ashtray I provide, but chuck them willy-nilly into your night-time glass of water! There are a whole flotilla of those horrible stubs floating around like nasty little depth charges every morning as I do the clearing up.”

She was pure exasperation as she hissed: “And so?”

I jeered, “And you have the bloody gall to talk to me about behaving like an animal!”

An endless, heavy silence ensued, and once we’d finished eating she returned to her perch to resume her smoking and nail-biting.  After the washing up, I decided we might as well try to break the tension by watching a movie, and I fished out a vintage Bunuel and asked her had she seen it lately. She shook her head listlessly and we sat on the sofa in silence and in the darkness, until Lidia slowly seemed to relax and even took and squeezed my hand. As the film ended I moved to  kiss her but she stopped me with a comical pout and said in an oddly naive, rather dulcet tone:

“Look. We need to check out something important.”

“Do we? Are you sure? And does it involve Santa Maria perhaps?”

“Tell me honestly. Tell me here and now! Do you believe in the I Ching?”

I flinched a little at such an inane anti-climax, and a considerable discomfort supervened. Gradually and vividly I recalled circa 1970 at Oxford, an unhappy woman student whose rich but vindictive parents wouldn’t pay her grant, so that she survived on minimum rations by making pomanders to sell to a shop in Little Clarendon Street. She was forever chucking the I Ching straws as a means of divination and to calculate what was to happen to her next. As far as I knew it was to be making pomanders 7 days a week for the foreseeable future, but presumably for her it was her single means of hope.

“Believe it or not,” I said, “I’m a byword for tolerance. I really don’t mind you eating with your eyes closed and I don’t mind folk using the Taoist I Ching or astrology or Reiki or aura therapy or whatever the hell they like. We are all adults after all, and are free to do as we want.”

Lidia was perspiring with her wagon load of irritation. “That is all just words and compromise! Listen to me. I want us now, right at this minute, you and I, to throw the straws to see how our future together will be. Will you do that for me? Do you have the courage? Will you?”

I smiled but didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“No I bloody won’t! Listen to me carefully, Lidia as what I am saying is rather subtle for your average  Euro-Hindu. I don’t believe nor disbelieve in divination, but I just don’t do it, it is not my cup of tea. Likewise, I don’t play poker or smoke opium or avidly watch Wimbledon on telly every summer, as if for me lawn tennis and Cliff Richard jollying the spectators along when it pisses down were to be regarded as a cumulative approximation to the Divine.”

She looked at me painfully shocked, in fact wounded to the core. Then she delivered the choicest of summaries, as ironically it echoed the precise logistical means by which we had met each other in the first place.

“I hope you realise now that we can never ever be true Soulmates!”

I’m sure you can all hallucinate the missing noun before that last word. In the old days it was always preceded by ‘Manchester’, and just then and for the only time ever I wished I was sat in a noisy city centre pub in the boisterous northern metropolis, rather than in peaceful little Kythnos with a Portuguese woman called Lidia.

MUGGED IN ATHENS

The next post will be on or before Sunday May 28th

MUGGED IN ATHENS

Last Friday I almost had a heart attack in Piraeus after something very alarming happened. To put things in context, I usually enjoy being in Athens’ enormous and bustling port, for it is a sprawling city in its own right, with a character all its own, some parts rampant with elegant bars and tavernas, others spectacularly down at heel and reminiscent of the days when it was notorious for hashish dens, mafia style crime and the music of the sublime Vassilis Tzitzanis. Wherever you are these days though, you will find a certain unabashed elan and confidence, especially amongst its older citizens. Old guys in particular strut about nattily dressed in designer denims and stylish shirts and with a cigarette on the go of course and the other hand whirring round their komboloion worry beads (what worry would that be?) and they always look as if they own the whole city as they tease and banter the good-looking waitresses and genially insult each other. Compare that with how old English guys bashfully hide themselves as much as they can in public, usually by timid innocuous banter and predictable and pallid gags as if to declare themselves a 100% harmless and well on their way to oblivion. At any rate my previous visit to Piraeus had been last November, on my return from a fine weekend in Athens with Jan, where everything had gone perfectly: exquisite Indian meals on Ermou, lazy wanderings round Thiseio and Monastiraki in pursuit of books, knick-knacks and jewellery for presents, and a perfect coastal path amble between Voula and Vouliagmeni. The two of us had sat down at a lovely shack café a dozen yards from the sea and the sense of lambent peacefulness evident in everyone there, confirmed yet again that eesikhia, or that special and transcendent Greek tranquillity is something very real and not a case of wishful thinking.

Then, as Jan headed for the airport and the UK, I took the metro to Piraeus and it was the most crowded I had ever seen. We were like sardines alright, and there was a faintly unpleasant and scowling lad of about 30 was jammed up against me for about 3 or 4 stops. It was only when I reached Piraeus that I felt for my wallet on standard foreigner abroad autopilot and, lo, or rather fucking hell, it wasn’t there! As you can imagine a sweating panic seized me and total disbelief likewise, and like a fool I must have felt a dozen times in every possible pocket, as if the wallet would suddenly leap back into substantive life from nullity as things sometimes do in fairy tales. The consequences of that little bastard’s theft were appalling: bank card gone, boat ticket gone, all my cash gone. I needed to get home to Kythnos in an hour and I had no ticket and no money to buy another. I felt like a pathetically stranded orphan aged 66 and indeed I wasn’t far from tears. After 10 more pointless searches for the wallet I had the sense to ring Jan at the airport who was very practical and very calming and she paid for my boat ticket over the phone as I explained my dilemma to a friendly lady travel agent. Then a text to my daughter Ione saying please wire me a loan to Western Union on Kythnos as without a bank card I could not access a single euro. Next the gleeless nightmare of ringing the bank to tell them that the card had been stolen. The woman at the call centre was wonderfully untrained or maybe just dense or underpaid or all three, and couldn’t track down the account by my very striking Greek address, nor by my name. By a miracle, I eventually recalled my sort code (can you do that?) and I even took a stab at the account number and I was half way through it, when at last she found I existed and promptly cancelled the stolen card.

Thus it was that on my recent trip to Athens via Piraeus I took no chances and hid all my valuables inside a thin plastic money belt which was tucked away inside my underclothes, unlike those jaunty external jobs which are crying out for any self-respecting thief to fish inside or even to violently yank free. No one could get at my wallet, passport, cash now, myself included half the time, as it is not at all decorous behaviour to grope laboriously inside your underwear while the waitress is waiting to be paid. I ended up going to the bathroom to get the cash I needed, rather than being turfed out of the ouzeri on my Kythno-Cumbrian ear. At any rate, last Friday I was a good deal more relaxed than that time in Piraeus when I was traumatised by the theft, though even now the sheer quantity of street hustlers as well as those in central Athens was exhausting. I give as often as I can especially to kids and old men and old women, but eventually run out of change. Then there are the Indian and Sri Lankan lads doggedly selling torches and IT gizmos and bargain batteries, traipsing back and forwards in the gruelling heat, and I have never seen anyone buy anything from them apart from me. However, I had found myself my favourite perch at a souvlaki joint smack opposite gate E9, whence would depart the Kythnos boat that afternoon. The guy who runs it provides a brilliant vegetarian pitta for a paltry 1 and a half euros though he has to be coached to desist from adding sausage as a bonus gift, as he can’t imagine life without meat and also half thinks banal old sausage is a kind of effeminate transgender vegetable anyway. I plonked myself down at an outside table a yard from the busy main road, where streams of cars were whizzing past with all the drivers, middle aged women included, talking hell for leather on their far from hand free phones, a punishable offence in the UK of course.  I had 4 hours to wait for the boat leaving but I didn’t care. I had 300 pages of The Idiot by Dostoievsky left to read and I knew that this place stocked pop bottles of Malamatina retsina, the one whose label is adorned with the quaint silhouette of an infant from whose navel a large key protrudes. Everybody laughs at that picture albeit nobody understands it, though believe me Malamatina is one of the finest of retsinas, alongside splendid and equally acceptable Liokri, and venerable and impeccable Kourtaki.

I was as you see in an amiable seventh heaven, quite without a care in the world, when suddenly something dreadful happened. An individual or possibly more than one approached me from behind and put their hands tightly around my eyes and held them there an endless while and uttered not a word for what seemed an eternity. The light had gone out of my world, and there was a deathly silence and nothing else, and I was absolutely petrified. Logic and reason raced out of the window as I feverishly imagined it was an ugly double act where someone blinded me from behind and their accomplice came round the front and stole whatever was stealable. Remember this was central Piraeus where sometimes it seems half the population are hustlers, and where late at night especially the harbour front can seem worryingly sinister even though objectively it is not. One is not at all logical when blinded from behind, and the notional accomplice intended to ensure  a successful outcome was highly unlikely, given that all my valuables were in my underpants (one incidentally quite priceless and unreplaceable) and the only thing worth nicking was Fyodor Dostoievsky, and how many Greek pickpockets do you know that curl up at night languorously to peruse the great man and especially in an English translation?

The silence ended and the hands were removed, but only after they had turned my head through 180 degrees to behold the wicked thief or thieves as no less than…bloody old Tasoula Martinos.

“What the hell!” I bawled at her in Greek. “What the bloody hell are you playing at?”

The thief was certainly well known to me, for she was from Kythnos and she was the island port’s chief eccentric to put it politely. More accurately she was a short and dumpy and comical woman touching 70, with a face like a gawking puffin who remorselessly chewed everyone’s ear, and who everyone tolerated but always wished she were sat next to someone else. Her activities included at the benign and civic-spirited end, keeping the area around the rubbish skips tidy and even planting flowers there to make it look surprisingly pretty. At the other end, she was an inveterate gossip and had once even fabricated a baroque tale about me, something so wonderfully ludicrous I hadn’t even got angry about it.

“It was a joke,” she grinned as if I ought to be much delighted by both it and her. “You see, I crept up behind you here and-”

Mallista,” I agreed incensed. “But this is Piraeus and 2 yards from a thousand bloody cars flying past! This is not Kythnos, winter population 800 souls, where a smack on the back or a jokey blindfolding wouldn’t frighten anyone.”

She digested this after her puffinlike fashion, but didn’t look even a whit abashed, and I could happily have crowned her.

“But it was a joke, ella re, as you are my friend.”

I shouted, “Bugger that! How about simple common sense? I thought you were a thief, I really did! I was terrified, and I even thought it might have been two thieves working together to assault me. I nearly had a bloody heart attack.”

They talk about the bland leading the bland, but Tasoula was wondrously self-led and she would never ever understand anything that was clear as day to anyone else.

She countered with an infuriating smirk.  “But I am obviously not a thief. I am your old friend instead.”

Thus ceased the cut and dried ethical debate as far as she was concerned, whereupon she sat herself down and having gleaned I was waiting for the afternoon boat, said she would be taking it too. How fortunate then, she babbled on, that we would be able to sit together for the journey as I was such first rate parea = company. I stared at her amazed and more than horrified. The crossing would take 3 and a half hours, and a full 210 minutes with gasbags Tasoula would be worse than the most refined of mediaeval Ottoman torture techniques, up to and including execution. As my Dad would have said, my assailant had a gob like a torn pocket, or in my mother’s colourful words she could talk the blinking robin off a starch box (google starch boxes if you are stumped). But this was only a preparatory nightmare scenario for one who only wanted to be left in peace with his Dostoievsky and his retsina, the antipasti or orektika to what jovial little Tasoula who hailed from obscurest Makedonia, had in mind. She disclosed that she was staying in a dirt cheap and rather claustrophobic hotel nearby, having come over to Piraeus for a study course of all things. Rather than linger there in the squalid dump for the next few hours she would sit at this sunny cheerful table and discourse with me who was such an excellent parea.

Do your sums and consider my options. 7 and a half hours or 450 minutes with a rabid torn pocket merchant, would that be humanly feasible? She had already started on about the subject of her 4 day study course. It had been all about the history of ancient Greek philosophy as well as its connections with oriental philosophy and oriental religion. Esoteric stuff no doubt, and as far as I knew Tasoula was long divorced from a Rumanian and her son lived in Bucharest, and she would be the first to tell you that as a Makedonian Greek she was lonely and often felt quite isolated in Kythnos, which of course begged the question of why she had ever located herself there in the first place. One of the few interesting things about Tasoula was she could speak Rumanian whose only words I knew were bunu ziwa, drum bun! and omul, which mean respectively ‘good day’, ‘good journey!’ and ‘man’, the last one clearly cognate with the Latin homo ille.

I simply couldn’t be bothered to fabricate anything convincing for someone who had frightened me half to death, and refused to accept she had done so. I got up roughly and said I needed to do some shopping for my house, some essential kitchen gear especially. Anyone else would have known I was lying, but fine, she murmured sunnily, her skin so thick she hadn’t even noticed the blatant rudeness. Fine she repeated, and she would naturally look after my suitcase till my return as her excellent parea. No, I said gruffly, lifting up the case and turning my back on her, and I told her that I might be stopping to drink some coffee elsewhere, perhaps even 2 or 3 different places, though I didn’t know where as yet.

Bunu ziwa, I said. Then I walked off for an ouzo with mezes but without any ice, as a retsina would simply not do the trick after being assaulted in public by Tasoula.

MY NIGHT WITH NATASHA (a short story)

The next post will be on or before Saturday May 27th

MY NIGHT WITH NATASHA (a short story)

Author’s note. This is the first short story I have written in all of 25 years (the last one was in 1992). I have been concentrating on comic extravaganza novels but now it seems time for a change

Three years ago, I went to Athens airport to meet a beautiful woman from Alma Ata, the fabled capital of Kazakhstan. Natasha had come all that way to see me but had detoured via Budapest where one of her sons Sergei had a lucrative executive job with a  powerful global multinational. When I first saw her after the endless wait at incoming flights, it struck me she looked very Asian rather than Central Asian with her high and wide cheekbones, that handsome tanned skin and her exceptionally childlike and naughtily humorous eyes. She had explained her provenance in several emails, but it had been very confusing and she clarified it now as we took the taxi to a mainland hotel. Her parents were Korean, not Kazakh, and they had relocated to Soviet Siberia in the 1950s from a town that was to become a part of North Korea. They never spoke Korean in front of her so she grew up speaking Russian, was a very bright child, and attended Novosibirsk University where she studied chemistry. She then went into industry where aged 22 she met Fuat who was an ethnic Kazakh and spoke the eponymous language as well as the dominant Russian. They were married in 1978 and then moved to Alma Ata, where they soon started a family and where Fuat insisted she stay at home to tend them and to be a good, which is to say a flawless housekeeper. She only went back into industry after their divorce in 2010, after 32 years’ marriage, and she was now working in the promotional department of a flourishing food imports concern.

Suddenly something remarkable happened, though admittedly I found it far more remarkable than she did. She noticed that the taxi driver was speaking in Russian on his phone to presumably a friend, and it must have been the precise inflections that moved her to ask him in their common tongue where he was from.

“Me?” he replied in a boisterous voice. “Oh, I’m from Kazakhstan.  I’m from Alma Ata.”

She snorted hilariously and slapped her thigh, and he guffawed likewise to hear she was from the city which among other things boasts the sumptuous Central Mosque with its tenderly blue dome, and the massive Zenkov Orthodox cathedral, both marvels adorning the largest landlocked country in the world. Natasha turned to me, touched my fingers affectionately, and explained his extraordinary reply. I was both dumbfounded and delighted.

“That is unbelievable,” I snorted. “The first person you meet in Greece apart from me, is from Alma Ata, which most people in the world have never heard of. What are the mathematical chances of that? The odds must be impossible.”

She smiled and stroked my palm in a tender and natural way but I could see she wasn’t bowled over by the miracle. I asked her if the taxi man was possibly more mind-blown and she answered, no, no, not at all, so then I wondered aloud if all Kazakhstan folk took these impossible coincidences so lightly.

“It is very nice,” she replied playfully. “It is so funny. But I don’t think it is a miracle. These things happen.”

I was quiet for a few moments as I vividly recalled a dark-haired young man in Glyfada I had asked directions of a year earlier. I had asked him in Greek and he had touched his glasses, looked at me shrewdly and replied in very good English. After giving the directions, he explained that he was doing a degree in Maths in London and I told him I also had lived in London for a year in 1974, 17 years before he was born that is. He applauded my mental arithmetic and smiled that I was only a year out with his age. Where had I lived in London he enquired? Oh, West Hampstead. Aha? You don’t say? Why that’s where I live now. Really? That’s a little bit of a coincidence, given how big London is, eh? Which street? Oh, Priory Road, I love that area near bustling Finchley Road and I’ve been living there three years. Eh, but that’s absolutely crazy I said excitedly! That’s bloody crazy! I lived in bloody Priory Road, West Hampstead in 1974! And of course, I could have asked anyone at all for directions on a teeming Saturday night in Glyfada, but I asked you, and no one else! Yep, for sure! Aha, so look, let’s explore the supernatural and I’ll ask what number on Priory Road did you live at back in 1974?! Dammit, I sighed in moderate desperation, usually I can remember everything but I can’t remember that one after all of forty years. I haven’t a clue. I recall it was owned by an Indian lady Mrs Desi who must be long dead now and she had an ancient bespectacled caretaker from Nepal who wore a white hat that looked like an upside down plant pot. He also had a remarkably decrepit and more or less bald little dog that he really doted on and I think it was called Sally…

Once we got to the hotel and started to unpack, Natasha approached me solemnly and said that it was my birthday and priorities were priorities and I must look at her presents before anything else. What followed then was as startling as the taxi driver surprise, as she pulled out of her suitcase a stupendous treasure trove of beautiful objects, like some bountiful and magical princess in Central Asian myth. First of all was a sumptuous slip-glazed Kazakh tea set with an elegant shining teapot and six little handless bowls. She had wrapped it all meticulously and lugged it from Alma Ata to Budapest and then to Greece and here it was as pristine as when it left the workshop. It would have been a royal present on its own but then came three splendid silk scarfs made in Alma Ata, one crimson, one sea blue, one a kind of speckled gold she had bought for my daughter who she had never even seen a photograph of, much less met. By way of interim relief there then came a fetching little glass paper weight with some inserted marbled pattern that looked like three petrified fishing flies coloured crimson, turquoise and black.

“I’m speechless,” I said, as I kissed her fine hair. “You have spent a fortune on me.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “But that is appropriate. It is your birthday and our first meeting. And there is more to come.”

There was indeed. She stooped and hauled out an enormous and bulky museum tome on Kazakh architectural epigraphy, full of handsome photographs and a text describing all the important mosques of Kazakhstan, replete with a parallel Russian, Kazakh and English commentary. It came in a luxurious blue box with gilt lettering, must have cost a sultan’s fortune, and took up half of the bedside table where I looked reverently through its pages. A few enchanted minutes passed, and then I took her hand and told her we must go down the road to the excellent Italian place run by Greeks, where we would have the best thing on the menu, lobster if she wanted it. She wrinkled her matchless little nose, squeezed my fingers with a careful tenderness and said that no, no she wasn’t a bit hungry. But surely I said protectively, after a delayed flight from Budapest, and it being such a romantic occasion, our first date, and me the birthday boy to boot, the least we could do was go and gorge ourselves and order a really good bottle of vintage Cretan white to wash it down.

“It’s a very romantic occasion, isn’t it? Let me spend my birthday money on you, Natasha.”

She looked wise beyond her years, though like me she was in her early sixties.

“There are more ways than one of being romantic. If you think about it there’s a much more obvious way.”

I smiled my admiration and took her in my arms. “Ah yes. To be sure.”

“Look, my fine English gentleman. Just remove all my clothes and I will do the same with yours.”

She was standing with her back to the mirror so I was easily able to unclasp her bra, a thing which normally farcically defeats me and should have today after the heavy mavrodafni we’d just consumed. Then I removed her silken meaning Silk Road panties, and saw the sweetest thighs and most exquisite glistening peach behind that anyone might imagine. But now I need to pause the story, and refer you to the academic research on dating agencies, of which there is a surprising amount, and which assures us that despite almost 50 years of post-feminism (Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch appeared in 1970) the vast majority of women prefer the man to make an obvious approach when it comes to dating and courtship. It is a fact I find baffling, faintly irritating, given how many liberal and educated women I know who all complain about the general doziness and mediocrity of so many men when it comes to tender little acts and endearments, small and romantic gifts, not to speak of any notion of sensitive and preparatory embraces in bed, not to speak of occasionally dubious personal hygiene and reeking armpits on demand, and, much more to the point, such things as coital staying power and a phenomenal stinginess not only with orgasmic precedence, but with money and feelings, and a thousand other little bagatelles. I mention all this because Natasha being the ex-wife of a man called Fuat who made her play the domestic goddess, should have been the one to wait submissively for my approach, but not only did she take the courtship initiative for the obvious reason that she hadn’t been with a man for a year and was hungry for love, she also took the erotic kamashastra lead and decided exactly where the embraces should begin.

Briskly she led me to the enormous double bed, with its pink and sentimental Greek coverlet, where, predicting maximum satisfaction for both of us, she ordered me to lie flat on my back. Grinning from her Korean to her Kazakh ear, she climbed on top and seated herself face on, whilst also facing yet another mirror, above which was an unconvincing reproduction of a Matisse. She fished successfully  below and, inserting it like an acclaimed world expert, without a second thought and as if my groin were an unfeeling tractor seat, she started to bounce up and down with ever increasing pressure and velocity, all the while moving her brown Korean thighs and snow white Siberian bottom in carefully graded arcs, as if only through industrious years of application and connoisseurial expertise, could she get exactly where she wished to be.

“Many Happy Returns!” she gurgled, red faced and breathless as she increased the speed of her mad bouncing and as if indeed I were not a tractor but a trampoline, and she was wishing to be propelled to the height of the fluted ceiling.

I said to her in a state of stupendous excitement, “It’s actually more like Christmas! All of those magical gifts! One of them being a woman who rides me like a horse and who treats me like a king.”

“Yes yes,” she snorted. “Compliments of the season! God rest you, Merry Gentleman!”

Her Central Asian buttocks as calibrated battering ram on my groin were of course unspeakably wonderful, and indeed I felt half delirious, but there was one far from trifling thing was worrying me.

I hesitated then, “This is great, and nothing like this has ever happened to me before. But-”

She smirked and inclined her head like an inquisitive little cockateel.

“What is it, birthday boy? Consider me at your command. Let nothing ye dismay!”

I frowned and felt very foolish.

“I’m frightened that…well to be honest, I’m scared that it’ll snap off!”

She paused in mid bounce like an eccentric gymnast.

“You what? Come again? Or at least I hope we will.”

“You’re going hell for leather, Natasha! Like an industrial steam hammer, and doing massive lurching sideways gyrations, and I’m worried that it’ll simply snap in two…”

She hooted her extreme merriment. “That’s quite impossible, my sweet North Englishman! Such an outlandish thing has never been known.”

I grunted. “I know it bloody hasn’t! But anxiety is anxiety, be it rational or not. Think of a woman in the throes of labour who genuinely imagines she is going to split in two. That’s why my poor old Honourable Gentleman here is worried for his bloody life.”

She chuckled helplessly as she continued to ram and then catapult up and away from me, and murmured ah yes, that was certainly a good nickname I had given him, but all the same she could suggest a better one.

“I think you should call him your Right Honourable Gentleman.”

I stared bemused. “Like an MP? A member of parliament?”

“A member alright. Haw! Right in one, birthday boy. And a very fitting acronym. My Peen-“

I looked at her with a sudden determination. “But actually it’s mine, not yours! And that’s the problem.”

I also asked her with serious if farcical concern if her lovely soft as a Greek peach bottom wasn’t bruised from all that crazed sledgehammer battering. At this she gasped and chortled.

“You’re kidding. This Central Asian behind happens to be specially cast of tungsten-plated steel. Believe me it is not worried it will split in two, even though anatomically and with its two voluptuous buttocks, it is well on the way to evolutionary fission.”

I marvelled aloud at her amazing English and wondered how long it would take me to be proficient in Siberian Russian so that I could pun on Right Honourables and bifurcating backsides and the like. I didn’t marvel too long however, as, once she had reached her summit, she then commenced ingenious things with her hands, nipples and the perimeter of her thighs that made sure I reached mine five minutes later. Around midnight I fell into a slumber of great depth, but it only seemed a few minutes before I woke again and saw by the alarm clock it was 3am. I also noticed that I was corpselike flat on my back again, and that someone small and determined was on top of me and was industriously bouncing up and down like a variation on a perpetual motion machine. And it was pitch dark as this strange simulacrum started to croon in an affecting little childlike register:

“Bearing gifts, we travel so far! Westward leading…still proceeding!”

Yes she was still proceeding, and more than anything she seemed like an old fashioned if demented PE mistress determined to show the lazy schoolgirls what could be done if you had enough reckless zest and bulldog stamina. She was an oriental bearer of gifts, as well as a Home Counties Physical Education fiend and a Siberian CCCP steamhammer and a cosmopolitan expert on the shotblast steel technique as she suddenly deserted her perch, only to stoop and use her tongue to do the truly unbelievable, yet something that you are probably old enough to imagine for yourself.

“Numerous Happy Returns!” she cooed, as if beginning an excerpt from some light operetta she had just devised.

And so it went. She climbed back onto her favourite chariot, and for another hour she poy-yoynged to the ceiling at ever more feverish rate and paused only to do slow and measured stirring of my groin with her expert behind, as if the groin were a cauldron of witches’ soup and her Kazakh bottom a magic ladle. At length we reached our appropriately Olympian summits and immediately fell asleep, but then I shot awake at 6 with this exotic giant cuckoo back on the nest again, and back once more in furious harness. Dumph dumph dumph, it went, dumph dumph dumph! It had a music tantalisingly its very own and it was both oriental and unplaceable, perhaps more the infinitely intelligible orchestration of an afterlife specially designed for those who are helplessly addicted to the pleasures of the flesh.

Turned 8 o’ clock (our boat went at 11) she woke me a third time with her exultant aerial soaring, and we began our fourth dizzy ride of the carousels and the sky flying showboats. I kissed her tenderly and protectively and told Natasha the obvious, that with her all my birthdays had come at once and all my Christmases had arrived simultaneously, and I would surely never meet another woman like her, who not only gave me everything I wanted. but far, far more than I wanted. She even gave me the fear of being unmanned in the literal sense, and that only through excessive and orgiastic and adorable indulgence, albeit she offered no guarantees nor renewable five year warranties, much less any cowardly fire or safety exits.

The Honourable Gentleman did not snap off, needless to add, even though for all four rocket rides it really felt that it might. But then the supremely generous in this life (The Creator, Shakespeare, Rabelais, George Eliot, Beethoven and all the rest) are often those who present us with the hazardous and the terrifying also. For they know what we do not know, which is there really is no bogeyman inside the wardrobe, unless it be a skulking and perverted and scheming human being, and that there never has been and that there never will be any genuinely supernatural  ghost in the overwhelming darkness that surrounds us.

THE ATHENS CENTRE AND THE DICTIONARY BOOKSHOP

The next post will be on or before Saturday May 20th

THE ATHENS CENTRE AND THE DICTIONARY BOOKSHOP

Did you hear the one about the dozy sexagenarian Englishman who went into a Greek wholefood shop and asked for something ridiculous not to say outlandish? When I wandered into the Thiseio health food place in Athens I was after allspice aka Jamaica pepper which the Greeks don’t use much, but I do in my Middle Eastern dishes. There is a particularly fine Turkish sauce of diluted tomato puree, lemon juice, lemon rind, yoghurt, sugar and allspice which you add to stuffed aubergines in the Israeli dish aubergine medias. Having forgotten to bring my Greek dick with me (forgive me, when I was a kid I read too manypublic school tales such as Frank Richards’ Billy Bunter, the gluttonous Fat Owl of the Remove. They always said to each other, ‘Sling that dick= dictionary at me, old boy!’ They also said ‘Cave!’ all the time and I had no idea what the hell that meant in my pit village ignorance, but it is Latin imperative for, Hide!) I decided to wing it from memory and asked the nice lady for ‘baklaros’. In fact, there is no such word, but it sounds like bakliaros which means ‘cod’. If you’ve been to the Algarve for your annual holidays, you will know of course that it is cognate with the Portuguese bacalhau which my Dad (1915-1992) told me was an imported wartime staple in the UK and which everyone hated and which they called ‘leathery brat’. I’ve no idea where ‘brat’ comes from though it sounds Scandinavian, but imagine the scene in austere but pulling together 1942 as a game English Mum with the stalwart Churchill spirit, shouts up the stairs to her doting family, ‘Come and have your delicious wartime economy supper,  for as a treat I’ve bought us all some splendid leathery brat…’

The attractive assistant in her 50s looked startled to be asked for some wet fish and who can blame her…but she had no English and neither allspice nor Jamaica pepper meant anything to her. She did what we all do now and googled ‘allspice’ and the Greek for that is bakhari, all the more confusing as the standard Greek word for spices generally is bakharika, which the lady did not seem to have heard of either, as she referred to mirodhika instead. At any rate, she had no allspice, bless her, and the moral of that is get your UK friends to bring some with them when they get their Ryan Air tickets and their euros from the Post Office (apropos which and as a fascinating irony the best exchange rates for euros in the UK are at high street loan shark shops…)

I was in Athens for several reasons, one of which incredibly involves a newish and fascinating word you may just have heard of, and it is called ‘networking’. I always thought I was the last word in impulsiveness and impatience but it took me all of 2 long years to start visiting Athens in earnest from my Greek island home of Kythnos. I now love and cherish Thiseio where the views of the Parthenon and Acropolis are the first and last word in epiphany. I also enjoy Monastiraki for its 2nd hand music and book shops and Kypseli for its laid back village feel and the coastal walk from Voula to Voulagmeni because of the lovely little shack cafes by the beach. I have just spent most of this week based in shabby but enjoyable Metaksourgeio, just beyond Omonia which is full of Albanian and Bulgarian travel agents and has a wonderful street market from which I purchased the following: bargain shorts; bargain underwear; bargain cashews and economical pligouri/burgul (the Middle East again) and a sumptuous duvet cover made out of good cotton for a modest 10 euros. You will see that I like both modesty and bargains, hence can predict that I chafed considerably when a guy at a hardware stall wanted 15 euros for a German imported saucepan, whose twin I later found and bought from a Polish store at Omonia for 8 euros. The market man also had Chinese imported brightly coloured metal pans whose handles always shatter after a year, whereupon boiling hot sauce spills on your sandaled feet and you scream your agony and come out with always new and ingenious swear words. On any British market, you would get those for the equivalent of 2 or 3 euros but the Metaksourgeio guy wanted 7. I was tempted to ask, if 7 for that gew gaw, my dear pallikari, why not ask 700 or 7000 but kept my peace and wandered pensively on.

That night I went along to the Athens Centre in Mets just up from the Pangrati area which hosts another cultural treasure in the form of a remarkable bookshop. The Athens Centre established 1969 is currently in the care of an American called Rosemary and it is a lovely extensive building with a tender and atmospheric courtyard and it hosts lectures, poetry readings, weekend seminars and the like. Its Greek language courses are reckoned to be the crème de la crème with playfully imaginative ways of getting a tough language across. I went along to attend a lecture by a young German academic called Dr Valentin Schneider about the Nazi Occupation of Athens. Schneider who has trained in both France and Nottingham, was born in 1983 which makes him 34, but as all people under 40 look the same age to me, he was so to speak ageless. What impressed me most was that he delivered the lecture in faultless English without recourse to a single note or reminder. I could no more do that than sprout wings and he is approximately half my age, and I have been teaching various subjects for over 40 years. Schneider has been doing research on the letters that German soldiers wrote home to their families and girlfriends from occupied Athens, and I was fascinated to learn that the Nazi high command made sure these soldiers were rotated to other countries and other occupations every 6 months or so, so that among other things they never got too close to the locals. The logistical problems pre-computers must have been phenomenal but he also said there was some huge building in Berlin where they kept tabulated notes on no less than 18 million German soldiers. The talk lasted 45 minutes and the questions which had to be curtailed, a full hour, and there was a capacity audience of about 100 folk, most of them Greeks obviously fluent in English. Not only was the lecture free but out in the glorious courtyard, there were delicious free refreshments and wine and you could not have asked for anything more movingly civilised.

My first networking at the Centre was with a very handsome and very energetic Greek woman of perhaps 50, a well- travelled architect who wrote down the name of my book Radio Activity and when I said it was full of Cumbrian dialect she said, oh good, no problem, for she had holidayed there in Cumbria as a child in the English mountains. Oh, I started, moderately amazed. Yes, she replied, near Ben Nevis. I guffawed not least because she had cheerfully mocked my question to Schneider as rather a daft one, but it was that kind of playful mockery which is to be relished rather than resented. I said, no, sorry, you’re wrong, Ben Nevis is in the Scottish Highlands. She guffawed too so that helpfully I mentioned Scaw Fell Pike, Helvellyn and Skiddaw and she said ah yes, yes yes, she had been up the last one when she was 10 or so. More interesting to me was that she had been through Albania in her professional context, but way back in prehistoric 1991(I was there with my daughter in 2013). In that year, she said the whole of Albania had precisely one traffic light. I told her that the roads are still pretty bad, often just dirt tracks outside of the cities, but there is now a state of the art motorway joining Prizren, Kosovo with Shkoder, the handsome capital of the Albanian north. They even have elegant motorway cafes that would not be out of place in Germany which of course is where many Kosovans moved to get away from the 1999 carnage, and also to make a living. After the architect, I talked to a cheerful and buoyant Greek American and his friendly English wife with the interesting inversion that her very dark hair made her look very Greek, and he would have passed for a 3 generations Englishman, no problem. Apropos ethnicity, he countered by admiring my flat cap and the fact that I live on Kythnos and write books, and he said that I looked not like an Englishman but like a Cretan farmer which is the nicest thing anyone has said to me for a long time.

The next day I visited the Lexikopoleio or Dictionary Bookshop at the far end of Pangrati, in fact in such obscurity that I always get lost looking for it and have to ask for often contradictory directions. It is run by a remarkably gentle but charismatic Frenchwoman called Odile who is fluent in Greek and English and sells a hell of a lot more than dictionaries. Odile is modest about her English stock but I was very impressed by the quantity of bargain (yes) Wordsworth Classics and stocked up with Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Joyce’s Dubliners, Tom Jones (by Henry Fielding, not the Celtic singer hunk) at half the price I’d have paid for tattered second hand English novels in Ermou. But she also stocks UK Vintage and Penguin fiction plus NYRB imports and Dover Thrift (that’s American for bargain) paperbacks, and surprisingly a colossal quantity of Somerset Maugham who it turns out Odile likes very much but alas I do not. Another surprise was that there was plenty of TV-revived Gerald Durrell but none of the Hellenophile and far greater writer his brother Lawrence. But yes, and good, lots of Paddy Leigh Fermor, including his precious work on the Mani and you can’t say better than that.

Odile also organises regular readings in her bookshop, mostly in Greek, and she cooperates with the British Council in their creative writing weeks when the participants come and perform their work at the Lexikopoleio. Like the Athens Centre her shop is a very touching and anomalously civilised amenity, for the profit motive is more or less absent and the vision beyond them is one of ideals, integrity and…why not say it, hope.

THE SECRETS OF LOVE

The next post will be on or before Wednesday May 17th

THE SECRETS OF LOVE

As you probably know, or certainly you do if you are older than 40, a life as seen from the outside often bears little relationship to the inner reality or shall we say the comprehensive picture of both the inner and the outer man/woman. So it is that you can read someone’s glowing or for that matter appalling and incredible CV and assume all sorts of things that turn out to be way off the mark. Thus, in my own case given that I won the coveted Dylan Thomas Award for short stories in 1988 (previous winners include Orange Prize winner Rose Tremain, born 1943) you would reasonably think that I might have been knocking out stories ever since. In fact, I have written no new ones since 1992, a full quarter of a century. Instead I have concentrated all my energies on writing my comic extravaganza novels ( the 1993 Radio Activity, the 2003 Jazz Etc etc) as I relish the exhilarating, nay supremely intoxicating, nay sybaritic, dissolute and disgracefully debauched freedom of 60,000 words to play around in and to fool around in (note the ungrammatical double postpositions and prepositions) to make my own particular jazzlike music of anarchic comic digression, alternating Cumbrian dialect and standard English narratives, multiple unreliable narrators and so forth. You cannot do that kind of thing easily in 3000 or even 5000 words and if you attempt an extravaganza novella of 15,000 words there is no one in the universe who will publish it in 2017. This is a great shame, as some of the finest stories ever written whether comic or deadly serious are in fact 15-20,000 word novellas, those by the wonderful Russian writer and chronic boozer Alexander Kuprin (1870-1938) author of The Garnet Bracelet (1911) subsequently made into a 1965 film, being a prime example.  And for what it’s worth I give a very funny quote from his When I Was An Actor story at the start of Radio Activity (1993, reissued 2004).

In the case of poetry, I wrote my last poem in 1975 when I was 24 and that is 42 years ago. In those 4 packed decades, I have read very little contemporary British verse, since I find much of it stiflingly parochial not to say downright bloody tedious. I admire as everyone does TS Eliot (who gamely put Upanishadic Sanskrit in his poetry, datta, damyata, dayadhvam, ‘give, be self- restrained, be compassionate’) and WH Auden (who was to be seen haggard and bejowled and chatting kindly and wisely to students in a café in St Aldates at Oxford when I was there in 1970) and Rainer Maria Rilke and Christina Rossetti, but that breathy geezer usually called Tim or Beth who holds a Poet In Residency sinecure and tells us about what they can see out of their window while eating their breakfast of muesli yoghurt and gives 20 minutes of preliminary explanation when the poem in question takes 5 minutes to read, such a geezer gives me the pip. They also give some very well-read friends of mine the pip. My friend the zestful polymath Monica from London flatly declares she doesn’t get poetry, but she certainly gets quality cosmopolitan literary fiction more than most people I know, specialist academics included, and devours it like essential vitamin-enhanced food (she is the only person I have ever met who can read 100 pages of a demanding novel on a boiling hot Greek beach in mid-August with not a trace of frowning nor squinting much less my wine-induced snoring). She can also read the novels of that doyen of Spanish letters Benito Perez Galdos (1843-1920) in the original Spanish and on a Kindle, lawks, Mr Copperfield, what a woman, but like me she would sooner watch the sink emptying than endure that venture into elective catatonia known as ‘A Poetry Reading’.

But then something very recently happened to make me modify my uncharitable and just possibly a soupcon unreasonable, even a modicum irrational, disaffection. An anglophone school teacher from Athens who saw my creative writing website asked me to tutor her here on Kythnos in poetry, even though my Writing in Kythnos site stresses that I teach only fiction. That didn’t seem to bother her vis a vis my potential as critic and mentor, and especially when I told her that as Lancaster University UK where I was Royal Literary Fellow 2007-2010, I did sometimes look at a student’s stories or poems as well as their academic writing. We swiftly arranged a weekend course and I set about researching good poems for us to analyse apropos virtuoso writerly technique as opposed to standard academic lit crit, and with some specially designed assignments to inspire this Athens writer to attempt some new work. I decided they would all be women poets we would look at, and I spent a bloody long time trying to find something exceptional and original as opposed to passable and of the muesli yoghurt (even be it organic) denomination. In the end, I plumped for the Egyptian French writer Andree Chedid (1920-2011), the British Denise Levertov (1923-1997) and head and shoulders above both of those the giant of a Nebraskan novelist Willa Cather (1873-1947) author of the 1918 My Antonia …and I don’t know about you, but I didn’t even know she was also a poet, and I imagine you would only find that out if you read her most exhaustive ten ton biography. I am now, ahem,  going to give in full the short but packed lyrical love poem the two of us looked at word by word and line by line, and Monica if you are reading this don’t bolt out in a panic for the Sunday paper, nor go into your kitchen and look intently, as do both of your little hydrophilic cats at the sink emptying, but take a deep and calming breath… and see what you think.

THE HAWTHORN TREE by Willa Cather

ACROSS the shimmering meadows–

Ah, when he came to me!

In the spring-time,
In the night-time,
In the starlight,
Beneath the hawthorn tree.

Up from the misty marsh-land–
Ah, when he climbed to me!
To my white bower,
To my sweet rest,
To my warm breast,
Beneath the hawthorn tree.

Ask of me what the birds sang,
High in the hawthorn tree;
What the breeze tells,
What the rose smells,
What the stars shine–
Not what he said to me!

TALKING POINTS

This little poem which very touchingly could be easily understood and savoured by a bright 10-year-old born circa 2007, is about the ecstasy and anticipation of romantic love as recalled with unrestrained, uninhibited, wholly unashamed, yet very tender and reverential nostalgia. Look enviously at those fearless and proudly confessional exclamation marks, and those 2 reckless ahs! in the first 2 verses

Observe the chorus or melodic incantation structure starting with ‘In The’ x 3 and ‘To My’ x 3 and ‘What The’ x 3. In the first two choruses, there is a cumulative increase of vivid precision (it was spring, but it was also night time and there were also stars which offered the lovers their vital illumination) which mirrors an increase in the passionate romantic intensity. Ditto the narrator or Willa’s alter ego who offers him her bower/hideyhole and it is there she offers her lover specifically rest, and the precise locus or sanctuary of the rest is her warm and impassioned breast

The last verse is the most problematic and it only makes easy sense if you read the first line and then the last line immediately after. Look, she addresses us tauntingly, you can ask this doting and adoring woman what the birds in the hawthorn tree sing by all means, but don’t ask her in her ecstatic hideaway what magic her lover said to her and to no one else. The lovers’ secrets are truly incendiary and explosive, too powerful to reveal to anyone that is not in love and thus not in on the arboreal secret.

But what does the breeze tell, how does it speak to those who are in love and those who are not in love? How does the rose smell to the amorous initiate and the unamorous non-initiate? What precisely is it that the stars radiate to the elect and the ones not chosen for a supreme and adoring love? Is it quantum radiation or is it the arcane and insoluble ether, or is it an impregnable spiritual and aesthetic mystery?

 The answers are only to be found in the mystery of what her lover said to her in her sanctuary. But Willa is not casting her pearls before unromantic swine like ourselves, and she is not bloody well telling us…