By Konstantina Sozou-Kyrkou
She’s been crying again. Doesn’t look me in the eye. Up at the ceiling, at the bubbles surfacing her black Greek coffee, sliding her fingers around the saucer rim. Carefully, meticulously, as if reading her whole life story in it, counting in inches the moments that this has happened before. She’d need thousands of saucers to be able to do that. I pretend I don’t notice anything. Look out the window, at Vonitsa and Preveza in the distance, their houses two white-teethed jaws, the Amvrakikos gulf separating them, at the snowy Akarnanika mountains on the left that have witnessed the etching of this childish pout on her face.
‘What have you been cooking?’ she asks. I’m sure it would make no difference to her if I tell her we are having roast crocodile for lunch.
‘Pateras’s favourite. Chicken soup.’ I pretend a carefree manner. ‘I’ll give you some when it’s ready,’ I start whisking the eggs in a glass bowl. At the sound of pateras, she springs up and shuffles to the balcony door, apparently gazing at the red geraniums in the flower-stand outside. Out of the corner of my eye, I see her right hand moving nervously towards her nose and eyes, a paper tissue crumpled in her hand. I pour some lemon juice into the eggs, whisking, more briskly now, knowing there would be more. I usually give her five minutes after she’s taken the first sip of her coffee before she cracks up. She inhales deeply, sits at the chair again, her eyes glued to the fridge.
‘He’s done it again!’
‘Done what?’ I ask. She eyeballs me, a look full of meaning.
‘Oh, come on mana! Don’t be silly!’ I chuckle and sit at the wooden chair opposite her.
‘He has, he has,’ she bursts, tears now glinting on her crimson skin, flooding her face wrinkles, welling between her pressed purplish lips, sprinkling her coffee saucer.
‘He’s what… seventy-three, seventy-four? For God’s sake mana, talk sense!’ I should have known there was something wrong the moment I saw her slouching her way into my living room a few minutes ago, but I thought it was another of their usual arguments. He refused to eat the spaghetti she had cooked – which she insistently cooks more often than not – or he was pestered by one of his customers and then took it out on her. Such everyday squabbles so easily bring her down in the dumps.
‘Who with?’ I investigate, her answer already refuted in my mind, suppressing a mocking smile and a wicked sense of amusement. Mana must have suspected something as she wipes her nose decidedly and says:
‘Oh, don’t bother. It’s nothing,’ she pushes her cup of coffee to the middle of the kitchen table.
‘Come on mana! You can’t just drop a bombshell and then say it’s nothing at all’.
‘No, no, no, really, forget about it,’ she heads to the door, lower lip still quivering.
‘Oh, whatever!’ I sigh, stand up and start ladling some thick, hot soup into a pyrex glass bowl for her to take downstairs. ‘Can’t you just wait for the food?’ She hesitates for a while, her back to me, then turns around and scuffs her aerosole loafers back into the kitchen. I am ready to hand her the bowl, the handles burning my fingers, when through the steam I see her seated again, her eyes firing bullets of pain and hatred across the room. She is now twisting the sodden paper tissue in her hands, again and again, as if squeezing all the tears, all the pain, away.
‘I saw them.’
‘Who?’ I’m running out of patience now.
‘I was putting Thanasis Kabouris’s things into a plastic bag… when I looked up…’ she starts to sob. I offer her a white paper napkin, and she goes on in a gurgling voice: ‘She caressed his hand when he gave her the milk, the bitch!’ Louder cries now fill the room. Then, as if she’s just remembered something, she muffles her plum-like mouth with the napkin, casting fearful glances at the main door and goes on in a lower voice: ‘Ten cans of milk! I didn’t see her handing any euros… Why eh? I’ll tell you why! She pays him her own way!’ a raised eyebrow and an index finger slashing the air, then dropping over her lap like a bird that’s just been shot.
‘You must’ve imagined everything. What if this woman’s hand accidentally brushed his hand? That doesn’t…’
‘No, no, no!’ she waves with her hand. ‘I saw his look!’
‘Well, you know men! Show them a beautiful face and they get swept off their feet. Giorgos does that all the time. If I whine every time he gives a girl the eye, well…’
‘Yours is no better,’ she snorts. I pretend I didn’t hear her.
‘You know how things are, mana. Men like flirting, not least those over the hill. It gives them a breath of fresh air, an illusion they’ve beaten death. But that’s as far as it goes. They don’t dare go any further, I’m sure.’
‘You don’t know nothing.’ Mana shakes her head, obviously having heard nothing either. Her own thoughts overflowed in her mouth, ready to gush forth. ‘Nothing can stop him. And these sluts! Coming over here, giving away everything for a can of milk!’ I wasn’t even ten when I first learnt what that could really mean.
‘No, pateras, no… don’t do it!’ I wail with all my strength, my eyes were glued onto the huge barrel of the rifle pateras is holding. He doesn’t say a word. His eyes bulging and veined like walnuts, his face yellow, a faint crack in the place of his mouth. Rushing to the shop with the stride of a soldier, the weight of a mountain, crunching his way down the graveled path past our house and into the asphalt that leads to mana. I follow him with misty eyes as his metallic figure shatters the blurred outline along his route, throwing splinters of ice at all angles.
I cling to the iron fence that separates Thea Melpo’s house and the overgrown path and sob, pulling at it in desperation until my knuckles, blood-drained, hurt. Thea Melpo is bending over me trying to untangle my numb fingers, her cotton kerchief flowing over my face like a black crow, her earthy, agonizing breath on my cheek.
‘It’s all right, my child. Don’t worry! Nothing will happen.’ She ushers me over to her concrete yard like a somnambulant child who mustn’t be woken and seats me on the whitewashed stone bench under the almond tree. She sits next to me, occasionally patting my back.
‘He’ll kill her… why… what’s she done?’ I mutter, feeling the cold stone bench freezing the back of my thighs, creeping across my spine, not bothering to tug at my school uniform. I just sit there, petrified like another Midas, my eyes shut under my damp palms.
I don’t know how long I’ve stayed in the place when I hear our iron gate squeak. My mana’s bent figure is rushing into our front yard, her hands shaking by her sides like startled fish, Thea Melpo following her with brisk steps and frowning lips. A deep breath leaves my chest like smoke billowing from our chimney. I don’t want to go there. I want to be forgotten in the yard, under the strong almond tree. I want to be one of the branches that hug and cuddle and whisper in allegiance to each other and be embraced and sheltered by the warm sunrays. Nothing else I want to see or hear.
When Thea Melpo calls me in, I slam the door of my tiny room shut and scrunch up into a ball under my woolen blanket. Conspiratorial voices and sobs are heard through the cardboard walls from my parents’ bedroom: ‘You made him look like a fool.’ ‘But I saw them,’ and as Thea Melpo is leaving, louder: ‘Don’t be silly! Turn a blind eye and you’ll be the one to win. You can’t change men.’
Mana moves again to the balcony door. Her glassy look reflects nothing of the view ahead. The bright sky, the brambles on the mountain like the curls on a child’s head, the hills like peaceful waves gliding along, eager to meet the sea, their cerulean mate, finally merging with the sky into a fathomless sapphire. But a grey filter seems to have been permanently set onto mana’s eyeballs, pateras’s indecorous figure, like another Priapus, impressed on it, blurring her sight, her mood, her psyche.
‘You haven’t got any serious proof, mana. Why don’t you talk to him, fish for something?’ I stand up and rinse the dark dregs out of the bottom of her cup into the sink, realizing I’m off the topic. Who talks to whom?
‘As if you don’t know him,’ she nods her head morosely, reading my mind, then takes the bowl with the soup and heads to the door. I open it for her and she just mutters a ‘thanks for the soup’ under her breath. What I see going down the stairs is an amorphous lump of jelly, and if one prods at any part of it, the rest will start wobbling and shaking, struggling to stay in one place. The jelly and the brick, I thought whenever I saw mana and pateras standing side by side. I imagine pateras as a square, red brick that however you roll it on its sides, it always remains upright, unscathed. The jelly leans over the brick but whenever the brick jerks, the jelly wiggles and tilts, silently toiling.
I’m expecting another visit of mana’s in the afternoon but by late evening she hasn’t yet shown, and I decide to go downstairs; see how things are. A waft of boiled cauliflower envelopes me as soon as I open the kitchen door. All lights are off, all windows closed, beaded lines of condensation running down every one of them.
‘Mana! Where are you?’ I shout.
‘Martha, is that you?’ Her voice is hardly audible from somewhere in the house. ‘Can you turn the cooker off? I’m boiling something… Must be ready,’ her voice trails off.
‘Yes, sure.’ I lift the rattling casserole lid and fork the cauliflower to test if it’s done, only to watch it scatter all over the bubbling water like dollops of mashed potato. I turn the knob off, slide the sash window open and search for her.
‘Why didn’t you turn on the extractor hood? The whole house is fogged up from the food.’ I open her bedroom door and see her flat on her bed, pale, a puffy face swallowed by her patchwork duvet. I slide the dressing-table stool closer to the bed and sit next to her. She props herself up, her right hand pulls at the tall beech wood headboard, placing her pillow against it, her head slightly tilting. I straighten her duvet and slide my hand along the sides of the bed, down its sharp edges. The wood looks so dark suddenly; shiny dark, marble dark like a grave. Muddy water floods into the room circling the bed in a menacing stream, swelling the brown floorboards. They’re so flimsy, like the butter biscuits mana eats for breakfast, dips into her Greek coffee. ‘How are they going to hold the bed now?’ I wonder in agony.
‘What’s wrong? You feeling all right?’ Mana’s worried voice brings me back to reality.
‘A bit dizzy suddenly,’ I shiver. ‘I’m OK, I’m OK,’ I straighten my back up… ‘How are you? Anything happened?’
‘Like what?’ She looks out of the balcony door, the eyes of a hurt deer.
‘You know… pateras… Did you tell him?’
‘Tell him what?’
‘Come on, mana. About her.’
‘Don’t you know your pateras? I can’t tell him anything. He’ll just glower at me and say I’m hallucinating.’ She picks a paper tissue from the box on the bedside table and blows her nose, tears welling up in her eyes.
‘Mightn’t you have imagined everything after all?’
‘Don’t you start!’ Her brow puckers. ‘I’m not crazy! I know your pateras like the back of my hand… Haven’t you noticed anything different about him?’
‘He dyes his hair – or what is left of it.’
‘He, what?’ I’ve never been particularly observant, but this I should’ve noticed.
‘Just a shade darker. Doesn’t want people to notice… Why now eh?’
‘Well… there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look younger.’ Pateras has never clearly said so but we could all trace signs of a tenacious denial of ageing and – obviously – dying in his behaviour, always doing things to exorcise the evil, to pull the wool over Pluto’s eyes, delay the inevitable. He bought a new, saloon Ford when he was seventy and started building a new three-bedroom flat in Vonitsa for his wife and him two years later. When a friend or relative around his age died and we got home after the funeral, we would create a small eulogy for the deceased round the kitchen table. He skirted around the subject and said, ‘Well, much older than me. You know how flippant the birth registers were those days,’ or ‘with all this booze and nightlife, what do you expect?’ combing his sparse hair with his chubby fingers, assuredly excluding himself from Pluto’s clientele.
‘He wants to grab her I say,’ mana lashes out. ‘And all this aftershave! He never used the stinky stuff before. Can kill a mosquito within an acre…’ She touches her forehead with her fingers, closing her eyes. ‘I’m tired Martha. Sick and tired of him!’ She sighs and wipes her eyes. ‘And this slut has such a nerve! She called here yesterday.’
‘She did? Talked to you?’ Things are getting hairy now.
‘No, not me. She hung up when I answered. Called again sometime later and he almost tripped over the stool on his way to pick it up; the… the…’ her mouth crammed with unspoken expletives like trapped steam in a pressure cooker. ‘You should’ve seen his face!’ she nods.
‘Did you ask him?’
‘Oh, I did. I did. And you know what he did? He threw the platter with the pantespani I’d baked onto the floor. Smashed to pieces!’
‘He hasn’t!’ What a bully! He’s always been hot-tempered but abusing her like this! The whole thing seems fishy. Why such a reaction if he’s innocent? It seems his philandering hasn’t worn out a notch all those years. And I thought she was imagining things. ‘Oh mana! You don’t deserve this.’
‘I know, I know… It’s my damned fate, that’s it.’ Tears roll down her face now.
‘It’s not just fate mana. You should’ve done something long ago; dictate your terms, set his limits…’
‘Are you out of your mind?’ she glares at me. ‘He’d never listen, let alone do anything I say. I’ve always been the fifth wheel. There’ve been times I wanted to go away but… go where? What would koinonia, the people say? Your grandparents? A divorced woman was like a leper those days,’ she flaps the duvet by her side and slides her feet down onto the parquet.
‘Sod people! You are the one who’s been suffering. You wouldn’t be more miserable than you are now.’ Mana’s face changes at this. More serious and less damp now.
‘He hasn’t always been that bad. Hasn’t done this since you were children. I don’t know what came over him.’ She stands, puts on her thick blue robe, ties the belt around her waist and slips into her fluffy slippers. Then goes to the wooden chest of drawers, takes out a box of Lexotanil and flips one out.
‘Still taking these?’ I point at the round, pink tranquilizer in her palm. ‘He’s made a mess of you!’ She flicks a nervous glance at me, turns her back and then swallows the pill.
‘It’s not just him. It’s too many things… Anyway, I’ll manage, don’t worry.’ She opens the balcony door, totters out and starts weeding the flower pots, plucking at some dried leaves. I go out with her and stand by the door, my back stabbed by the freezing wind that’s rolling down the mountain, the cold stinging my nostrils.
‘Go in! You’ll catch a cold,’ mana shoos me and goes on beheading some dead roses, the skin on her lower jaw flapping loose with every move.
‘No, I’m fine… You know mana. If I were you I’d demand an explanation.’
‘Would you?’ she says in a bass voice, her upper lip curling.
‘It’s never too late to dig in your heels. Don’t let him tread on you.’
‘Look Martha!’ she interrupts me, her eyes wild now. ‘I know thousands of women like me. Every damn man in this village cheats on his wife. Everybody does it! Do you think Giorgos hasn’t done it to you? I doubt it,’ she snaps, a flicker of spite hovering in her eyes. I am left there thunderstruck, gaping. I know she’s never taken to my husband – in fact I’ve never heard a nice word from her lips for any of her sons-in-law, and there are three of them – but this is too much. I go silent for some time, getting to grips with what I’ve heard.
‘How can you say that? I’m sure he’s never done it.’ Even if he has, she should never hurtle it to my face like this, just to hurt me.
‘That’s what they all say,’ she chuckles. ‘The wife is the last to know.’ The jelly has got prickles after all.
‘Look mana! Giorgos is the only person in this world who’s loved and respected me like nobody else has. Bear that in mind. And I never want to hear anything else about him. Ever. Mind your own business instead!’ I feel short of breath and though I see her face getting scarlet and long I don’t give her the chance to retort. I stomp into the house and up the stairs into my own house, shivering. Thank God Giorgos and the kids haven’t returned from his brother’s at the other end of the village. I wouldn’t want them to see me like this, puffing and panting like an old horse. I slouch on the sofa and struggle not to cry. A knot goes scraping up my throat and down my stomach as if I’d swallowed a mouthful of stale bread, her words twirling in my mind like dirty clothes in a washing machine. Hot tears soon burst out and without realizing it I fall asleep.
A knock on the door wakes me up.
‘A minute!’ I shout and dash to the corridor to check myself in the mirror, dabbing at the smudged eyeliner under my eyes with my fingers. Bloated and with a blocked nose I open the door.
‘What’s all this fuss about? Why is your mana crying? Do you know anything about it? She won’t tell.’ Pateras storms into the room, scratching his hair.
‘Err… No idea. Why, what happened?’ I feign total ignorance.
‘I’m asking you,’ he squints at me. ‘Have you been crying too? What’s wrong with you women?’ he raises his stubby hands upwards in mock desperation and sits on the kitchen chair.
‘No, no, no, I haven’t. My allergy,’ I lie and blow my nose on a paper napkin.
‘Mm…’ he doesn’t seem convinced. One of the most serious breaches of his household behavioural code is crying. Never allows anyone to cry in his house, at least in his presence. Crying means cowardice, a habit too effeminate, even for the girls – including mana – and we should all steer clear of it. He’s never cried himself, except maybe as a baby. His sole reaction to all kinds of stimuli is anger. Anger when one of his daughters would wake up ill and bunk off school, anger when we ask for pocket money, anger when we laugh out loud for more than he could bear, anger when the food isn’t ready at 1.15 p.m. sharp, exactly five minutes after the shop has closed, anger when we dare voice our opinions, that do no not coincide with his. His protruding eyes clapped on ours – he never swore and hardly ever beat us (unlike mana) –were a warning signal enough to send us rushing into our rooms until his wrath extinguished.
‘Your mana has gone berserk these days. Can’t stand her anymore!’
‘Why, what happened?’ I insist on lying.
‘Haven’t you noticed anything?’ He casts an I’m-sure-you-know-better glance at me. ‘She’s sulky all the time and has this weird expression on her face as if she wants to kill me.’
‘Oh, you know mana. All these women at the shop… You know what I mean… I’d be jealous too if…’
‘Jealous; of me?’ His eyes flash with doubt as much as with pride. ‘That’s why… You know what she did yesterday? She wouldn’t let me leave the house until I told her who I was talking to on the phone. Jabbering over my shoulder for hours. It’s ridiculous! My blood was up! Broke a dish…’ he looks at his shoes, pinching his lips between his index and thumb.
‘Why didn’t you then?’
‘Tell her who you were talking to?’
‘Oh, it was Maria Giannakouli… you know her. You’ve been to school together. A class your senior I think.’
‘Ah, yes, yes, I do. I haven’t seen her in years.’ I remember her. She was the tall blond with queues of admirers at school, drooling over her voluptuous body.
‘Well, I didn’t want your mana to know what I did for the woman. She might be upset, ask silly questions; why help her, you fancy her, that stuff.’
‘What was it that you did then?’ My eyes stuck to his lips, sucking in his every word like a Hoover, my jaw dropped, ready for revelations at last.
‘Maria’s got four kids and her husband was given the sack. Last month I think. No money to feed the poor kids. Well, the priest called me the other day and asked me if we could raise some money for her. He’d give some from the church every week and I’d give her milk for free for some time until her man finds a job,’ he says the last words with contempt. Men who can’t find work are worthy of his – and everybody’s – derision, in his view. ‘Yesterday she called to thank me but she hung up when your mana answered. Didn’t want to cause any trouble.’ It seems that the brick is not that square after all.
‘I can’t say she was successful.’
‘That’s your mana’s problem.’
‘Maybe if you had explained you’d have escaped trouble,’ I say this in the gentlest of ways, avoid making it sound like a telling-off.
‘I don’t have to tell her everything. I’m not to blame if she’s hallucinating. So thin-skinned!’ He gets up with a groan. ‘Well, she’ll come to herself sooner or later. There’s nothing you women can’t bear,’ he sneers, his grin dismissing every bad thought like swatting a pesky fly from his nose. He walks to the door in his perfectly ironed grey suit, a waft of aftershave trailing behind him, his pace tense, that of a soldier, straight shoulders, head upright. I study his hair. If it’s a shade darker, I can’t tell.
I warm up some milk from the fridge and sip it slowly, sitting on the couch. It’s too dark to see the mountain at night through the balcony door. Only its outline under the dim moonlight and the lights of Vonitsa and Preveza lined up, facing each other, the Amvrakikos gulf a resting tongue between them. They flicker and twinkle to each other, the lights looking dimmer at times, like they’ll go out for good, but then sparkling bright again. My eyes haze, and they appear merged into one flashing beacon, like a heart ablaze, beating, throbbing.
Konstantina Sozou-Kyrkou is a Greek writer who lives in Greece but writes in English. She has studied drama, has a BA (Hons) in Literature and an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. She has had a short story published in the anthology entitled ‘Even Birds Are Chained To The Sky’ by The Fine Line Editorial Consultancy and another story published online by the Five Stop Story publishers. She is currently working on a short story collection.