Down the main street where it followed the sea, Petros kept the diesel Merc at 20Km the hour. A sea breeze freshened the heat. From outside his store, blankets and pots out on the pavement, Nikos shrugged him. Further down, Sortiri signaled from the pavement edge. Later maybe.
He pulled in behind three other taxis at their base outside barba Christos’s kaffeneio. They were playing Thanassis four-handed, the three of them and Christos himself. Petros put his feet up on the strut of another chair and picked up a newspaper he’d read before. Basketball smallprint caught his eye. Under his shirt the sweat had dried out. PAOK Salonika’s strike rate was in decline against that of Red Star Belgrade if looked at from a half-yearly point, it was there in a table. Vassilli was out of the game, he dropped 500 on the table and got up as a three-hander was dealt. Petros followed him out and drove round the one-way to the rank opposite the bus station café to wait for the next Athens bus. He parked behind the Toyota. The driver’s door was open. Kostas sat behind the wheel, feet out on the asphalt, reading a paper.
You’ll cook in there, Petros said, sitting himself in an orange plastic chair on the pavement.
Kostas looked at his watch, laid down the paper and got out of the cab, stretching his legs from the knees. I’ve known it hotter, he said. Should be here in a minute.
It might, it might not. Didn’t take much for there to be a traffic jam on the Corinth highway. Petros lit a Marlboro. The bus came round the corner. It was the newest of the Pullman coaches, Haris driving. If he’d known that, if he’d known, he’d have made a bet, jam or no jam. Haris, Olympic champion in the Pullman speed event, who then gave the horn a blast like he was now up on the nostrum for the medal.
Windows juddered. Birds scattered. Passengers stepped out of the coach like they were setting foot on another planet. Kostas loaded up a family for a village out in the hills. For himself, Petros had a couple of hesitant big blonde women in shorts. Brunhildes. They dragged back-packs over the road to the Merc wanting the Camping. Giant sized back-packs, the boot would not close. He took them out again to find his octopus grip, green and orange stripes on their woven outside. He reloaded the back-packs and tied the boot lid down to the chassis.
The girls were happy in another language: fair enough they were on holiday. Whatever that was. What, you paid to go somewhere were no one spoke your language? No, you paid for the sun you didn’t have. The sun, they should meter it like they’d started with the water. Down the main street Sortiri signaled like it was really important. Petros mimed it, he had a job but would be back. Out of town the girls got excited at the orange trees, pointing, smiling at him into the rearview mirror. The Camping was doing well, hardly a spot left. The girls gave him a big smile and said Endaksi with the 500 drachma note.
Back towards town he detoured to a beach café-restaurant. The waves rushed and dragged, he could hear them; parked up, he saw them, and walked to the tables set out under an awning of untrimmed cane. The sea looked good, playful foam on slow waves, just waiting for him to dive in and stay under the surface clean and green.
Which he would do, when Jurgache was a little older, that’s what they’d do. Regularly. He was going to make a point of it. And Roula. Make a day of it.
The owner of the place asked how it was going. There’s a couple wanting to back to town if you’re going. Fancy a beer with me first?
He thought about and shook his head. A red plastic ball fell at his feet. He picked it up and came face to face with solemn-faced chunky five year old. He whipped the ball behind his back, then flipped it forward and up in the air.
The fare was a big man looking good in slacks and a Lacsote black shirt, with a woman who might be his wife, or maybe the daughter. She looked very good. The guy called him Compatriot and put his arm round the girl; told him there was only one brand of Scuba gear worth considering. Approaching town his theme was gymnasia and the one he used in Faliro. Someone should open one here, he said, it’s good money.
What, in this weather; when it was the weather of nearly half the year? All to get a sore arse on a bicycle. No, Petros could not see it. He nodded in agreement. As for himself, drop these people in town and he was going to drive straight on through and on home. Eat a little, lie down a little. Say hello to Roula, say hello to the boy. Only this time, them dropped at the hotel and him on his way, Sortiri was in the road waving him down. Did that man get around, popping up all over town. He was supposed to have a shop to run. Petros pulled in.
How’s it going, where’ve you been? Sortiri said like he hadn’t seen him in a year.
Work, he said.
Sortiri had his head in the window saying they should have a drink, pointing over the road at the old boys kaffeneio. Petros said no, he was going home for a rest, had been at it all day.
Bullshit, I haven’t seen you in weeks, you’ve time to share a beer.
If that’s what Sortiri wanted OK, why not, because he was going home. Fifteen minutes at the most, a cold beer scrubbing his dry mouth, and he’d be off. A couple of the old boys were half asleep inside, proper pensioners. They took chairs in the shade outside.
So how are you, what’s happening? Petros asked.
What was happening was that Sortri wanted a favour just as the ice-cold bottles and the glasses came down on the table. With all the demands of his hardware store, he just couldn’t get out of town to pick up the slaughtered piglet his father had for him.
He’ll bring it round to you when it’s convenient, tell him when you see him. And how’s your mother, busy as always?
She’s OK. Getting older and picking the figs even though she says everything’s rotten since Chernobyl. I tell her she doesn’t have to, we can pay someone to do it.
They don’t listen, same as father, I’ve told him. But that’s his life. All of them, they don’t want anything else. Still it’s not bad, 200 the kilo. What’ll you make, two hundred and fifty thousand? Three?
Bah, nothing like, but it will be something. I’m not complaining, but what a fucking work. She had me at it the other day. Thanks be I’m not yet walking like a tortoise.
Two dogs stopped wrestling and ran alongside as he drove away. Passing their own taxi kaffeneio he could not help but see barba Christos outside waving his arms. He stopped because something must be up, you just never saw the old boy out of the place.
It did not happen.
He’d never seen it.
Out of breath too, down at the pavement edge.
Lucky you were passing. Old Stavros, he’s in a bad way, got to get to hospital..
Petros frowned. Who? Which barba Stavros?
You know, the old mangas, Platanos old village. There’s just his nephew with him.
Christos didn’t sound so good himself, like it was him needed rushing off, oxygen cylinders at the ready. Petros said for him to call home, tell Roula what had come up.
Out of town he put his foot down. And remembered the old boy, the mangas. More stories about him than in Aesop. The New Year’s Eve card game that had finished on the Fourth. Splitting massive logs with his axe in reply to the cops when they’d come to ask him about some licence, and how they’d buggered off. But then he hadn’t seen him in years, hadn’t known he was still alive come to that. Not that he knew he’d died either. Obviously he hadn’t. And who was the nephew? There’d been three brothers as he remembered. Nikos was one, a doctor. It wasn’t going to be his son, he couldn’t see it, not a doctor’s. And there was another one in Australia, or maybe that was the mangas’s own son.
He gave the horn to a lorry rushing at him across the white line, and swung the Merck right out, tires on the tarmac edge. It rushed past, aubergines in polythene sacks bouncing off its slatted wood sides. Arsehole.
The turn off for Platanos village was asphalted. For a while it stayed flat through dry stone walls and olive trees where they’d ploughed up the earth in spring. Then as the road began to rise the asphalt ran out, the trees now spread out on terracing, and the dry, uncut grass grew higher. He knew Platanos, a second cousin Alekos lived there. Old Platanos, he’d heard of that too, might even have been there once.
The village that was new only because the other, higher up, was older, had a square with one low-roofed kaffeneio. He pulled up outside and was getting out to ask, except they were coming at him, Alekos in the lead. The cousin’s wife, Evgenia tugged at the passenger door. She jumped back, waving her hand. Petros leant back and opened it from inside. An old lady in black was handled in onto the back seat.
Don’t worry about the money, I’ll sort it with you, Alekos said. The old lady had inched across to the middle.
Barba Stavros bad is he? Petros said.
Alekos nodded. Then he shrugged.
Lets go, Evgenia said, slamming the passenger door like she was throwing the discus. A Russian Brunhilde. In the rearview he saw Alekos stood there in the square with his shrug.
Off course, Evgenia said.
The road was track worse than what had been before, the stones bigger in the dry earth. On either side the olive trees were bent from years of wind. From what he could make out from the two women talking at once, the old boy had taken a turn, that was certain. Had a chest problem anyway, had had a fall the day before, and now it seemed it might be the heart too.
Not surprising, Evgenia said. Cigarettes, coffee and cognac, that’s his diet, she said like it was fact, when it was only from the old lady’s talk, a kyria Maria, that she knew it; kyria Maria who lived in the one other inhabited house in the old place and really should not have left the old boy; kyria Maria who had to leave him to go down to the village to get the phone call made because Ioannis the nephew was a bit simple, she said, screwing a bony finger into her temple so as he could see in the rearview, and would have got it all muddled.
He’s a good boy, Ioannis, Evgenia said, and it hasn’t been easy for him with that obstinate old fool. He does his best but it’s too much for him. It shouldn’t have been left up to him, though God knows what he’ll do on his own if it comes to it. When it comes to it, I should say.
Of course. What, did she think he was stupid, there was a when for everyone and mangas or not, his time wasn’t going to be put off for ever.
Just as the old village came into view, bigger than he’d imagined, unplastered stone walls that made no sense, a crater lurched up on the right side of the track. He dropped down into first. It was a road for a bulldozer. A tractor minimum. The Merc felt its way along, absorbing the bumps and dips. A hobbled goat turned its head to give them the eye.
Isn’t there a brother, the doctor?
No, he was dead, didn’t he know that, Evgenia said like he should have, like any normal person did know. There were others however, and kyria Maria reeled them off, cousins, nieces, grandchildren even, all over the world, from Melbourne to Albany, New York, she said.
Just park there, Evgenia said.
It was a flat space, room for three cars, shaded by the plane trees that had been enough to give the place its name. Water was no problem, one side of the area was defined by a stone wall out of which came a short metal tube protruded. The spring outlet was stoppered by a shaped piece of cork. Just the odd drop fell into a hacked out stone basin below, until the water was needed.
The women bundled out. He followed them uphill along a single file stony track. It twisted round the first building, a large house of two storeys without roof or doors. Sunlight bounced off the one pane of glass in the window openings. Prickly pear clambered over its yard walls and gripped a logo’d supermarket plastic bag. The sweat was bursting out of him, he could feel the trickles of it in his chest hairs. What was this, a marathon? He was taxi driver, He wanted to say it to Alekos, I’m just a taxi driver, only where was he, sly Alekos with his shrug like this was women’s work, sickness and hospitals, and no mention of any stony footpath up a hill. He cursed the second cousin without sound but was surprised out of it by what he saw, like it was a desert fantasy, the smart stone house up on the left with its bright new tile roof and polished wooden windows. Evgenia, at his side, caught the glance. She knew the whole story, had the dynamo to tell him as they panted up the hill. Bought by Germans who’d spent a lot of money on it, she said. They were in films is what they said.
So why not do something about the goddam road, it didn’t make sense. He didn’t ask but, bright as a button, the kyria Maria, it was like she’d read his mind and knew what there was to know when it came to vehicles, because it was a Jeep they had, a four-wheel drive she said, the old yahya said from under the black shawl.
She turned suddenly into a yard that fronted the bits and pieces of another big house. A roped donkey stood in the shade of prickly pear. She pushed open a low metal door painted with grey underseal. In the cylindrical stone vault of a room, the old boy sounded bad. On the one bed of two that matched the two chairs round the one table, you could hear it, the demented breathing. The nephew was stood at the head of the bed. He was frightened, a giant who had shrunk until Evgenia said there was something to do, that what he could do was important. Everything was going to be all right, she said, they just had to carry him to the taxi, and then they’d be in the hospital in no time. Petros heard it all, it sounded like the right words to be saying, but you couldn’t, no one would not be looking at the place and asking what was going on here? What was this? dictatorship times? Before that even It was clean enough and tidy but not even electricity, nothing except the transistor radio with the back off and the batteries showing. And the old mangas himself in a suit of black and brown that looked like he was never out of, rasping out words as the nephew got hands under his shoulders so there was nothing left for it, even if it wasn’t his job, which was that he drove a taxi for hours on end, but for Petros to get his hands round the thighs and lift. He must still be tall, like Petros remembered the old boy, but thin as could be until they were edging out of the low door, backs bent, and then he felt the weight, the bones maybe, them.
He was down on one knee to take the weight as his hands moved up again to get a grip around the hips as they edged out into the sunlight, cursing figs; worried that his back was going to give way, so that when they got there, if they got there, there’d be the two of them stretchered out in the hospital. Behind, Evgenia caught the trailing shins, and behind her, the kyria Maria talking without stop like she was the team coach. Then Evgenia again, with the pep talk, like they were a team of their own. It wasn’t that far, she said. Maybe. For himself, it was thanks be that it was downhill, and thanks be that it was the nephew who had to walk backwards with the bulk of the weight, the big guy, helpless in some things maybe, but sure-footed as a mule. His own feet felt the hardness of stones through the socks and the moccasins.
The old boy was looking at him. Frightened, no mistaking it, like he also could hear the desperate loudness of his breathing. Like there was no way back, and he knew it, never mind the no electricity, he was never going to see the place again. Or that was just Petros seeing things, and the old boy not thinking anything at all.
It’ll be all right barba, it’ll be OK, he said. Over and over he said it, hoping now that his arms would not give way and him lose his gri, and that for the old boy, however bad it was, once a mangas, always a mangas. The nephew said nothing, he was doing his job, and the job was the only thing in the whole damn world.
Nearly there, he heard Evgenia say, and felt his shirt wet to the skin, the skin wet to the shirt. And heard the battle for the breaths the old boy sucked in like an old dog, like his own dog Leon these last hot days. The white whiskers stood upright from the tight yellow skin, a stiff mess on his face. And what did he see, the way he was lifting the neck, the strings of it taut? The clear blue sky of course, the sun on his face, who wanted to lose that when it was losing it for ever and ever. Because he had to know something was up, whatever trick his body had played on him, the sound of his own breathing and now all the fuss. And of course he was frightened, death, when you didn’t know where you’d be going.
The one pane of glass in the first house glinted on and off in the sun. The soles of his feet were bruising through the moccasins. His arms were burning like they hadn’t since he’d done seasons in the olive oil press to make his stake, sack after heavy sack, to make the stake for a taxi, and now here he was with the taxi, but scared only of dropping his end of the old boy. His grabs for air were louder still as he felt the shade of the plane trees at last. Made it, a miracle. Maybe it was a day for miracles but he wanted to shout at Evgenia to do something useful, open the damn door. As if it was going to open of its own accord just because she was making a flap outside it. That even miracles needed some help.
It will be all right, he said to the face of the old boy, we’ll have you up and about again. But he was somewhere else, the mangas, or all his strength was being used to see that sky. The nephew stood waiting, the weight of the old boy mostly in his hands while the door was finally opened and Evgenia paddled herself across the back seat. His body in impossible positions, the nephew got the old boy in and his head in Evgenia’s lap. Still tall, the old boy, Petros pushed gently on the shoes that had lost their laces so that the knees bent and he was in. Not his job to say anything, but it didn’t seem right, leaving the nephew behind, visible in his rearview, still as a statue by the surrounds of the spring.
It was a long business: the 40Km drive; the death; the 40Km back again with the two women listing the calls that must be made, and what must be done with the nephew. Him unable not to hear it all till they were back to the square where Alekos took him round the back of the kafeneio to agree a price and pay. Back in town he was all in, he was kaput, but crazy, without logic, he had no appetite for going home.
So he’s gone the old mangas, Christos said, up at the two ring gas stove to make the sugarless coffee that Petros needed here-and-now since he’d decided home must wait. Bitter medicine for a wake-up.
Don’t suppose he’d got a drachma to his name though he’d sold enough of the family land, Christos said. Had to have his suits and play his cards.
Petros said nothing, how could he know, and now the old boy was in no position to set the record straight. If it needed straightening. If he’d have given a damn anyway when all he’d wanted, the chest heaving, was the sun on his face one last time. The phone rang for a job, out to Neochori and back. He passed it on to Vassilli, downed the coffee to the grounds, pulled a face, and got up.
Outside, lights glimmered all over town and along the sea edge. The streets were full of people on the pavements, in the road. He saw them, he heard them, them and the slap of the sea against stone wall below the road. He coasted down to the main square at close on zero Km the hour and made a space for himself. The tables on the paved center were packed. At the kiosk for two packs of Marlboro he felt the breeze through his shirt. He walked round the corner to the sea front restaurant of his cousin Takis. Here the breeze was a wind coming from the West. There were tables shore side of the road and some above the sea. Wouldn’t take much for the sea to be splashing up over there. There you were, eating your grilled fish as relaxed as can be and Bosh, a slop of salt water all over your trousers. Like it was you was the fish.
He sat at the unused table at the restaurant door. Takis gave him a nod from where he stood by a table of four. His two kids, Ioannis and Dimitra were rushing about with plates and bottles, backing up the professionals.
He was lucky. Luckier than the mangas who’d ended up on his own as good as, even if the nephew had done his best, which he had because at least their shack had been clean and you couldn’t expect anyone, not even the wife you shared a bed with, to wipe your bum for you.
The wind lifted up a corner of the paper sheet over the table cloth. He slapped it down and cupped his Bic to light a Marlboro.
Takis came to sit by him, said he was going to put up his feet for five minutes and they’d have a whisky together, Ballantines on a tower of ice. He got up again to sort it out himself. Ioannis rushed by with two beer bottles, one in each hand and disappeared out on to the road.
So what’s happening, Takis said?
The same, and more of the same, only today I was an ambulance, a waste of time, barba Stavros the old mangas, remember him, he’s dead.
Barba Stavros? Him? Didn’t know he was still alive? Must have been old, my father knew him when they were young. What was it, his heart?
His heart, his lungs, everything I guess. We were only in the hospital half an hour and they said he was dead.
Takis shrugged, said he hoped he didn’t end up in hospital.
Me neither, Petros said. They’re better these days but I tell you, when we arrived at the place and they’re taking his clothes off, what a scene. Got down to his longjohns and you should have seen their faces when they saw the skid marks.
What, he’d shit himself?
No, just stains, you know like he didn’t do a good job wiping his bum. Mind you, if you’d seen the place he was living, a shack. No electricity. A shack. But think about it, that’s all you need when you’re dying, what you don’t need, worrying about your pants.
Me, when I can’t clean my own bum, that’ll be time to go, Takis said. Then he said it was still some life the old boy had had, but what a lazy bugger.
My father said he’d say to him, and this would be coming up to Christmas mind when father had half finished, started your olives yet Stavros? And the old mangas would say, just waiting for the weather to get better. You know, when it had hardly rained at all.
At a table for two, Petros saw the couple from lunchtime, the Lacoste shirt and the stunner who’d been with him. And then Takis was asking after his mother.
She’s OK, still wants everything done her crazy way.
What do you think mine’s like. I won’t have her here, not any more.
With mine the old ways are always the best. So I tell her I’ll buy this new plastic netting they’ve got to put under the fig trees, save half the back-ache, but she won’t have it.
Takis touched glasses, said it was back to work for him.
Petros lit a Marlboro. Like he said to her, some of the old ways are best, and some of them aren’t. Anyway one day, maybe not so far off, she would be dead herself and then who could he call old-fashioned. It would be him next, Jurgache saying it to him, computers and whatever else was coming. And then when you were dead yourself, the stories that would be told, half of them untrue and nothing you could do about it. One thing was certain, what you did not want when you were dying was to be bothering about your pants.
Hey, compatriot. Are you working? The skilladiko, how about it?
The shirt was different, dark blue and cream slacks, the guy was wearing.
Say 12 Km to the place, but from there, just the 6 Km and he was home. Why not? And charge him the full fare. Why not! Give him a couple of minutes, he said.
Back in the square children were running everywhere, in and out of tables, and on to the road. He reversed out with care using the horn, and idled round. The man helped the stunner into the back seat and slid in himself like they were in a film on TV. So why the hell go to a skilladiko when you already had a beautiful woman on your arm.
That’s right isn’t it compatriot, our entertainment may be rough and ready down here but we know how to enjoy ourselves. I was just telling Anna. Real Greece.
Oh, was he from round here?
Not exactly, his brother-in-law had family here, his sister’s husband, and he’d been several times. As for himself he was looking at a few places in the area and, the tap now opened, said he was in construction himself in Athens, had met the prime minister himself, personally.
Petros overtook a tractor with busted tail lights and lit a Marlboro. The guy was off again, how you could still get real food in the country. No hormones or chemicals here, he said to the girl like that was all she ever ate.
And he was tired, his eyes like they’d been sprinkled with sand. He slowed down behind a sudden bunch-up of tail lights.
The soul of the Greek people, that’s what really matters, the property guy said. He even sounded like the prime minister. So, he was paying wasn’t he, would be paying over the odds so he could sound like the fucking Metropolitan Archbishop if he wanted. Five thousand drachs and no messing.
Of course we’ve got to modernize, the man said. You can’t stand still and like it or not, the reality is, we’re part of Europe. But the challenge is to remain true to our way of life.
The road opened up again and he put down his foot.
The Greek way of life, the guy said.