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.”

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