By Konstantina Sozou-Kyrkou
Thodoris snaffled the tin with the red paint from the grocery shop when pateras left him in his place to go use the toilet. He hid the tin and a brush under the empty beer baskets in the alley next to the shop and went there later at night to collect them – after pateras had switched the lights off and pulled the metal roll down. He wasn’t afraid he’d get caught in the act. He was good at those things. Always managed to sneak things under everybody’s noses; nobody ever suspected anything. Of course this time it was different. He did it for a good cause. For the village’s good.
When he brought the tin at home I saw him shove it under his bed, rub his hands briskly and grin. At first he didn’t want to tell me what he was hiding under the bed, but when I threatened to tell pateras about it, he spilled the beans. I said I wanted to go with him. I was brave enough and I could carry the tin if they wanted. He said they could manage themselves, and that a girl seen out late at night in the company of boys would draw more suspicions than two boys alone – his best friend Andreas and him.
I stayed there in his room, stamping my feet against the linoleum floor and sulking until he finally gave in. I’d go with them on one condition. I’d never tell anybody anything about it. Never. He told me we should now give a blood oath. He pricked his index finger with a pin and a tiny drop of blood popped out. He pricked mine. We touched fingers and our blood merged.
‘Now you’re a comrade, a communist,’ my brother told me with a gruff voice. ‘To do as you’re told by our secret organization, to work for the nation and the Greek people. To be ready to sacrifice your life for them.’ He bent and pulled the tin with the paint and the brush out and onto his lap, tapped at the lid with the brush as if on a drum and said, ‘Are we set for tonight then?’
‘Mm,’ I nodded. I wasn’t sure I was ready to do all this stuff for my country and its people, but I couldn’t possibly spoil his enthusiasm. After all, it was for everybody’s good. And we’d be heroes after that, though nobody except us would know about it. It’d be our little secret, a secret that would make us all proud of ourselves.
Late at night, I tiptoed to our parents’ bedroom door and peered through the keyhole. Pateras and mana were sleeping. Then into our grandparents’ bedroom. Papous and yiayia were both snoring. Thodoris and I edged our way out of the kitchen door and into the cold November night. I felt my lungs sting with every breath I took.I didn’t know whether it was from the chilly air or because I was so keyed up. We met Andreas down the street by the iron gate of the old school and formed a tight knot of conspirators, scattering tiny clouds of hot, fast breath in the moonlit air. Our footfalls shattered the silence of the night, echoing in my ears like hail on a tin roof. Smoke was rising up from some of the villagers’ chimneys, like the shadows of grey-hooded spies, and the acrid smell of burnt wood filled my nostrils. Andreas’s teeth kept chattering, and Thodoris slapped him on the nape of his neck to make him stop the noise. ‘Can’t help it, mate’, Andreas complained.
There would be two words to write: Eleftheria and Democratia. Freedom and Democracy were values for which we Greeks had fought many times in the past, causing immense bloodshed. Now it was high time we fought again, Thodoris had said. The fascist swine, the dictators, had gone too far this time. We heard it on the pirated radio station. Tanks treading on the university students at the Polytechnics last night. Soldiers against unarmed students. Thodoris cried with anger after the end of the news. The government TV channel YENEΔ had just showed a few well selected scenes with no victims present. It mentioned the leading dictator’s, Papadopoulos’s, statement that read, ‘that miasma the communism has spread its deleterious tentacles to the students, corrupting their minds,’ and that ‘the wild beasts’ efforts to overturn the healthy system have successfully been smothered.’ Thodoris explained that the communists were the good ones, the ones who fought against those bastards. He could get really hot-blooded when he talked about the dictators. He would clench his fists and froth at the edges of his mouth, his eyes round and red. I could hardly recognize his distorted face at such moments.
We’d write Eleftheria against the front wall of the gym and Democratia and Eleftheria on the main building, between the three dark green iron doors. Thodoris rolled up his sleeves, snapped the lid of the tin open with a clack and dipped the brush in. He spelt the word Eleftheria first, in big, round letters and then moved to the other building and wrote the same word again. Andreas was keeping watch near the gate.
‘Can I do it?’ I told Thodoris before he started off with the second word.
‘No, of course not. I want it straight and correctly spelt,’ he said.
‘You’ll tell me how. Please! Just this once.’
‘Oh, ok, ok,’ he said and gave me the brush. ‘Democratia with an e after D, ok?’ he said. I tried my best not to smudge the letters with the brush, although the D was more like a half moon rather than a letter. The rest of the letters were clearer but the word tilted upwards a bit. ‘Alright, alright, let’s pack now,’ Thodoris said.
There they were. Red, big, round letters against the white front of the school, like blood drips against young skin. We looked around for any unwanted presences and grabbed the tin and brush, ready to leave.
‘Oh, my God!’ I said, biting at my knuckles.
‘What’s wrong?’ Thodoris started.
‘What have we done?’
‘What? What?’ he goggled at me.
‘We used small letters. Not capital ones.’
‘They’ll recognize our handwriting.’
‘The teachers, of course!’
‘No, they won’t. We’ll trick them.’
‘We can’t. Look at the e and the c. They’re so very yours. And only I can do the r like this.’
‘I’m sure many more pupils do them the same way.’
‘I do the c the same way,’ Andreas said.
‘See?’ Thodoris said.
‘Oh, I don’t know. I’m scared to death. There’ll be a massive fuss tomorrow.’ I shivered at the thought. We stared at each other in silence, the whites of our eyes glinting in the moonlight. The air suddenly picked up, and we heard the elm leaves rustle and the twigs yowl as the wind passed through them.
‘Thodori, what did they do to the students in the Polytechnics, in Athens?’ Andreas said.
‘Tortured them I suppose. Don’t think about it. No one will ever catch us,’ Thodoris offered his knees again to help me jump over the gate.
There was indeed a great commotion after that night. Every student entering the yard uttered a big-mouthed ‘Ahh’ and pointed to the school front walls. The teachers were all alarmed. They hushed the pupils in anguish, fingers crossing mouths, and lined us up in strict rows in the courtyard for morning prayer. I saw the school caretaker rush into the yard with a brush and a tin of white paint. He left them near the painted wall at the gym and then put on a blue apron and started brushing the red letters in white paint, wiping the words out. I felt sorry that our work of the previous night was so short lived and stared as the red words were being brushed away by the caretaker’s hasty strokes.
‘What are you looking at, stupid girl?’ Our teacher, Mrs. Penelope, slapped my head straight and pushed me further ahead into my line, close to the steps where the other teachers had gathered. But, it was not only the teachers present. There was Boukos too, the village policeman, with his blue, perfectly-ironed uniform, shiny black shoes and awesome hat. Mana said one could slay a lamb with Boukos’s creases on his trousers. Always immaculate. The headmaster said a kalimera to all of us and immediately after ushered Boukos to the front. He looked very solemn, with his Hitler moustache and dense eyebrows. I felt a pang in my heart as I heard him speak with his croaky voice.
‘Dear pupils,’ he said; his black braids hanging from each shoulder dangled as he gesticulated. There was total silence from the students gathered as if everyone were holding their breath. ‘I’m afraid I’ve not come here just to wish you a good morning. I’m here for a very serious matter, indeed. Someone, as you must have already noticed, has insulted our school, our village, our country by writing these words on the school walls. By unjustly suggesting that we lack eleftheria and democratia. It is common knowledge that everything works properly and with justice in this school, this village, this country.’His voice reached a jagged crescendo. ‘Everything works like a well-wound clock. It is the present government that sustains this well-preserved system. It is the present government that built this magnificent school. It is the present government that brought electricity to the village and improved the irrigation system and so on and so on. You are all aware of the benefits the village indulged in since the Colonels formed the democratic new government and led this country to new paths of prosperity. There is plenty of eleftheria and democratia in this country to be sought for by the miasma who scheme thus against the healthy system.’ He took a deep breath and scratched his moustache. His tone was now peculiarly softer, his voice quieter. ‘I want to believe that nobody present has anything to do with this atrocious act. But, if any of you knows who did it, it would be to your benefit to come to the headmaster’s office today and reveal his name. You’d better do it now before it is too late. I’m afraid if that does not happen soon, I will have to resort to harsh measures so that order is restored.’
I felt weak, on the brink of collapse and I took some deep breaths in an effort to recover. ‘Oh God! What is going to happen to us?’ I thought.’ What are these harsh measures?’
After Boukos had finished his speech, a boy recited our morning prayer and we crept into our classrooms, soft clouds of whisper trailing after each group of pupils.
I never liked Boukos. There was a cold current always tagging along behind him. He often came to pateras’s grocery and made strict observations about how he should weigh sugar, watched him with his hawk’s eyes as he scooped dry beans into bags and onto the scales, how he measured the plastic tablecloth with his wood measure, how well he did his job. Pateras always lost his colour whenever he stepped into the shop.But he would soon put on a toothy smile and treat him to some Turkish delight or a wedge of feta cheese to please him and let him get off scot free. Boukos’s face would soften a bit after that, but he kept snooping on pateras’s work. His moves were brisk and abrupt, like a soldier on his guard, ready to catch the enemy unawares. Pateras would sigh when Boukos finally left the shop, and I was left there shivering, still panting from the distinct coldness his presence had brought into the shop. Yiayia said Boukos went out at night and eavesdropped outside people’s windows. She’d seen the shadow of his hat once outside our kitchen window.
‘He has orders from above to stalk the village, look for plots against the government. Track down communists,’ pateras said. ‘He has nothing against our family. He knows we’re on their side. I’m sure your yiayia has mistaken the shadow of a tree for his hat.’
During the day, pupils whispered into each other’s’ ears at the breaks. ‘Who did it? Did you do it? Did you see who did it?’ My heart ached and fluttered. And since, of course, nobody came forward, all we had to do was wait for the harsh measures. And we could all guess what these would be. We were preparing our young bodies for them.
The next day Boukos was at school again, paying visits to all classes. He came to ours too. The teacher ordered that we opened our notebooks and wrote the two words eleftheria and democratia on a blank page and Boukos passed by and inspected our pieces of paper. He was poring over our handwriting. I could feel his frozen breath numbing my fingers as I held the notebook open for him. Boukos whispered something in Mrs. Penelope’s ear and when he left she told us that four of the boys will have to present themselves to his office first thing in the morning. For interrogation.Which meant beating. That’s what they said on the pirated radio station, they interrogate by torturing and beating the hell out of those captured. The same happened at the Lyceio in the town too. Thodoris, Andreas and two more pupils were the first to be taken to Boukos’s office.
‘Do you know anything about it?’ pateras had asked Thodoris the night before. ‘If you do, please my boy, give them in to save your skin. This is no time for heroisms. They’ll beat you up, my son.’
‘I know nothing,’ Thodoris had said with a bent head and flushed cheeks, and rushed to his bedroom. Pateras never asked me because I’m a girl and girls are not supposed to even think of such rebellious acts, let alone take part in them. But mana came into my bedroom late at night and with haggard eyes asked me the same question.
‘If you know anything, Marina, you should tell them. They won’t stop to boys. Next will be the girls. They won’t stop at anything unless they find out who did it. Please, my girl!’
‘I don’t know nothing, mana,’ I told her and pretended I was scribbling something in my notebook. ‘I’ve got work to do for school,’ I dipped my nose into my books.
Thodoris came home the next day with bruises on his shoulders and arms but he was lucky, he told us. The other boys had black eyes and lashed backs too. They had taken them to Margarita’s house, empty now since she and her mother died, and beat them up. There was a doctor present who felt them over with a stethoscope. Mana couldn’t stop crying. ‘The bastards,’ said pateras. ‘To think of the presents I’ve given him all those years. And how does he pay me off now eh? By beating my only son!’ He slapped his lap in despair and then held his head with both hands.
‘You didn’t talk, did you?’ I asked Thodoris when we were left alone in his bedroom.
‘Not a word, don’t worry,’ he grunted.
‘Oh, Thodori!’ I hugged him. ‘You’re a real hero, like Kolokotronis or Diakos. You’re…’ I couldn’t find the proper words to express my gratitude to him for not turning us in. I knew I’d have made a clean breast of it all but I don’t tell him.
‘Leave me alone Marina. I want to sleep,’ he said, exhausted, and so I left.
From then on, every single day we saw newly bruised faces at school until the boys were all done and it was the girls’ turn. My best friend Alkmene came into class early one morning and told me, ‘She’s got no nails,’ as she slid into her seat beside me at our desk.
‘Antigone,’ she whispered.
‘No nails! Everybody’s got nails. Are you having me on?’
‘No, really, no nails at all in her left hand. Swear to God!’ Alkmene crossed her index fingers and kissed them.
‘Did you see them?’
‘My mana did. They got them all five out.’
‘Shh! They. In Athens,’ she goggled at her.
‘Pliers, pincers, don’t know. Pateras says they do that,’ she bit at her nails and spat onto the mosaic floor.
‘Why?’ I felt a wave of vomit reach up my throat.
‘They do that to the enemies of the nation, he’d said. To communists, mainly,’ she whispered.
‘And, Antigone is…’
Alkmene shrugged, ‘probably.’ Antigone was kyra Maro’s, our neighbour’s daughter. She was studying at the Polytechnics in Athens and was in the premises when the tanks burst in. ‘She came here last night and mana visited them. She’s got sores all over and her hair is plucked out above her left ear,’ Alkmene said.
‘They’re monsters down there!’ Alkmene went on biting her nails.
‘Oh God! Are they going to do the same to us?’ I felt a strange, cold tingle rise up my spine.
‘No, they’re cruel to students in Athens. They’re communists. We done nothing. It’s propaganda, pateras had said. They just want to frighten us, banish any thought of ever doing such a thing again… I wonder who did it.’
‘No idea,’ I said and started shuffling my books in my satchel.
It was the 25th November when we heard on the radio that colonel Papadopoulos was confined in his house by one of his collaborators, Ioannidis. Androutsopoulos was now the new Prime Minister. Soon it was Christmas time and Boukos hadn’t come to school to finish off with the harsh measures against the girls yet. Something stalled him and we started taking deep breaths of relief, reluctantly playing chasing games and skipping in the school yard, slowly exiting the numbing state fear that had sunk into us. We later heard that Boukos retired and went back to his native village in the Peloponnese. The new Democratic government of Konstantinos Karamanlis was now established on the 24th July 1974 and we were free at last to unburden ourselves of what had happened.
I told Alkmene one day. ‘You didn’t,’ she almost choked in surprise.
‘Yes, it was Thodoris, Andreas and me.’
‘Oh, come on. You can’t even spell Democratia properly. I saw your notebook when Boukos came to school. It was misspelt.’
‘Clever eh? I did it to confuse him. Tricked him, didn’t I? And I’ll tell you something but promise you won’t tell, right?’ Alkmene nodded, her eyes bulged. ‘I’m a comrade,’ I rolled the letters slowly around my tongue. ‘A communist just like my brother and Andreas.’
‘Shh! Don’t say that word!’ Alkmene said.
‘Why not? Wake up! We’re a free country now. It’s Democratia we have, you know. The dictators are in prison. Forever.’ I stressed the last word a bit more so that she could take it in, and clapped my hands in triumph.
Alkmene obviously didn’t keep her mouth shut, and the next day the whole school knew our little secret. They all edged close to me and nudged me to tell them how it all had happened, if we were afraid or not of the consequences, how we felt, things like that. I told them I wasn’t afraid at all and that even if they got my nails out like they did to Antigone, I’d still hold my tongue and never sell my brother or his friend out. I was a real comrade.
When I came back home at noon, I found Thodoris sitting next to the fireplace in the sitting room. As soon as I went through the door he fixed his gaze at me. His face was distorted by the shadows the fire cast on him, and a strange glint flickered in his eyes. His lips were thin. ‘Come here, you!’ he sprang up and dragged me by the arm into his room.
‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘Do you think you’re a real comrade? Real comrades never reveal any secrets to people. Don’t you know? As silent as the grave. That’s a fundamental rule of communism. Why did you tell everybody who wrote those words? Were you told to do so?’
‘But, we’ve got democratia now. We’re not in danger.’
‘Even so, our work still hasn’t finished. Scum like those bastards the dictators are still everywhere around us,’ he lowered his head and said very seriously. ‘You’ll have to face the consequences.’
‘What consequences?’ I said.
‘You’ll have to be punished for breaking our laws.’
‘But… I didn’t know… I was breaking any laws,’ I stammered, and a strange numbness paralyzed my body.
‘You are never to reveal any secrets unless the matter is discussed in our committees and it is decided else.’
‘But, Thodoris, really, I didn’t know… I…’
Thodoris closed the door behind me, took a key out of his trouser pocket and locked the door. I saw him pull out his belt, lift my blouse up and aim at my bare back. And then I heard the lashing noise and felt the stinging pain. But I knew I shouldn’t scream because that would make him cross. And I knew I had to be brave because that’s what being a real comrade meant. To fight for your country and its people. To fight for eleftheria and democratia. To be punished for your mistakes, and never say a word.
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.
Artwork by Emaan Mahmud.