By: Sozou-Kyrkou Konstantina
The Greek coffee froths and as he tries to grab the pot away from the primus stove the coffee spills and puts out the fire. He’s a real slowcoach these days. Everything seems to overtake him. A crust is forming along the blue surface of the stove, coating it brown. He wets some roll and dabs at it. His fingers ache but he goes on rubbing the dirt off. There’s some more on the work surface and he cleans that too. Takes a sip of his hot coffee and his eyes water. He shambles out the kitchen door to the small yard and sits at the black iron chair by the table.
The red carnations look as if they need water. Most buds have turned dry brown before they even had the time to bloom. He ponders that this is probably because he’s moved the ceramic pot from the south balcony to the north one. Summer is going to be hot they said on T.V., a new heat wave is approaching Athens and the poor flower would certainly have been scorched if left under the sun. It’s funny how some flowers and plants react when one changes their position. They become sulky like people who migrate to a foreign country, homesick and gloomy. Or the other way round. When he put the two pots of Benjamin together, leaves and twigs touching, they both seemed to have sprung to life, bushy and lively green. Withered and sparsely leaved now they are apart. Like humans.
His legs feel painful and swollen at the joints, particularly in the morning. He can barely drag his feet from the bedroom to the kitchen and then out in the yard to catch the sun before it gets too hot. A pack of cards is on the glass top of the table. He shuffles the cards again and again wishing he had a partner to play a game with. Anybody. Even a short game would be enough to make his day. He craves a cigarette but his doctor told him that smoking would kill his heart. He takes three pills every morning and three in the evening. The red, the yellow and the white one. Thank God they’re different colours or then he wouldn’t have been able to tell one from the other. Can’t make out which is which, what he takes them for. He just does it because his doctor has said so, because he has to in order to keep the clock ticking. For the same reason he drinks water or eats his food. For the meals, he depends on his niece, Argiro. She brings him the prepared meal every day. He can’t imagine what he’d have done without her. She tidies up for him, shops for the groceries, brings him his medicine, cooks him meals, takes him to the doctor. After Katia had died, he couldn’t possibly cater for all these needs himself.
Of course now he has to put up with Argiro’s voracity and little desires. He has to see to it that she gets her little presents as an exchange for what he offers him. He’s never disappointed her with stinginess. There was that old, silver vase that was of no use to him but she couldn’t take her eyes off it; the silver, carved picture frame with the couple’s picture he didn’t really need; Katia’s gold ring with the small diamond on top Argiro thought fitted her so well. He doesn’t mind those little losses, has never been really attached to objects. Don’t mean much to him. It is people he cares about. Katia’s dresses and few jewels are insignificant, meant to be of use to some other woman. They are here to be handed down and not for him to stare and be reminded of his wife. Anyway, she is always in his mind, lively and affable, as she always was, prettily chubby and kind, with her little grumpiness in the mornings of course, which often turned into tearful outbursts after he’d stayed out late until the early hours, playing cards with friends, but she always got over that and he never paid much attention. He doesn’t need anything to remind him of her. He has his memories, her aura has always been around, still in this house. He can sense her looking at him from across this table, green eyes smiling, pinching at the basil ends to give the plant a rounded shape. He can hear her high pitched voice reverberate against the house walls, along the dark corridor. She is here, where he is.
He switches on his old radio and tunes in to ERA 2, the state station which has a clear sound and no static at all. Looks at his wrist for his watch but he’s forgotten he has taken it off because it doesn’t work anymore. Goes back to the bedroom, rummages through the chest drawers, on the bedside table for his gold watch. It’s been Katia’s present for his sixtieth birthday, some seventeen years ago when she’d inherited some money from her deceased mother. It’s the only thing that he values so much as Katia spent most of her money she’s ever had on a single present, just to please him. A very expensive watch, with its golden bracelet and shiny crown. He had it only for special occasions, like formal dinners or weddings and baptisms. He glances at the round clock on the bedroom wall and goes back to the yard. He’ll have to search for the watch later. It’s nine o’clock. Time for the news. The presenter’s stentorian voice announces for the umpteenth time this year that the country is in danger of a bankruptcy. Huge debts are overwhelming the state budget and the government is unable to collect the money from companies or individuals, even after all those harsh austerity measures of the last two years. Smart entrepreneurs and corrupt politicians have deposited huge – usually stolen from the state – sums of money into bank accounts abroad to evade taxes and now enjoy their profits undeterred. There will have to be elections again as the present socialist government do not enjoy the nation’s trust or approval. People are outraged and he can’t blame them. His pension has decreased from nine hundred and eighty euros to six hundred and fifty euros per month. Hardly enough money to sustain him. If there are more cuts, he’ll be in real trouble.
Argiro lives in Pendeli, in an apartment her father, his brother, had bought her as soon as she got married. She’s only five bus stops away. She’d been hand in glove with Katia, helping each other in many instances. The old couple never had any children of their own and Argiro and her children were like their own. Katia even babysat for Argiro’s little boy and girl until they went to school. Argiro worked back then but now she’s redundant. Her boss reduced the number of employees in his company to lower the costs. Every single day they get to hear of people who find themselves without a job. People with dependent family members and debts to pay. The old man used to work as an ambulance driver for the children’s hospital in Pendeli and also did some plumbing in his free time. They got by nicely those early days and Katia never had to work.
He has to remind Argiro to get him a box of his red pills. There are only three of them left and he’ll be needing some soon. He places the box on the kitchen table so that he won’t forget.
Noon finds the man lying on the couch, the T.V. blaring in front of him with a documentary about the life of hyenas. The ugly, man-eating animals that scavenge from human corpses. The voice-over says that victims of spotted hyenas tend to be women, children and sick or infirm men. In 1988-1999 in Uganda they killed sufferers of African sleeping sickness as they slept outside in camps. In Mozambique, the voice-over goes on, thirty-five people were killed in a twelve month period along a twenty kilometres stretch of road in 2004. He watches as one of these bedraggled creatures attacks a deer and drags it with its teeth along the desert, away from other wild animals that might claim it.
Just then the door bell rings. He gets up and goes to the door. Argiro has got the keys to the house but never uses them. Being discreet, she always rings the bell. She comes in carrying a plastic supermarket bag in one hand, her brown leather bag hanging from her left shoulder.
‘How’re you today uncle?’ she smiles and goes straight to the kitchen. ‘Got pastichio for you today, with homemade béchamel and fresh mince, you’ll love it,’ she takes a red plastic bowl out of the bag and a napkin with some bread in. ‘Is everything fine?’
‘Yes. Perfectly alright,’ the man says.
She picks up the box with the red pills, ‘Gone, eh? Don’t worry, I’ll get you some in the morning,’ she takes the remaining pills out and shoves the box into her leather bag.
‘Thank you,’ the man says.
‘I don’t want you to worry about anything,’ she pats him on the back. ‘I’m here for you, right?’ she rolls up her sleeves and goes to the sink. ‘Has the electricity bill arrived yet?’
‘No, not yet.’
‘That’s weird, isn’t it? Quite late this time. Hope it didn’t get lost in the post. I don’t suppose they have the heart to cut the power and leave an old man alone in the dark,’ she pours some dish detergent onto the sponge. ‘Well, don’t worry. Even if that happens, just give me a ring and I’ll be here right away.’
‘I’m not afraid of the dark. I can cope.’
‘Sure. Sure you can cope. Who says you can’t? Just… well, you shouldn’t worry about anything. You’ve got me. I’ll look after you and the place.’
‘I’m sure you will. You know everything’s yours too. And, anyway, after I die…’
‘Shh! Don’t you ever say such things. Don’t even think about it. You’re not long in the tooth yet. Who knows, you might even outlive some of us.’
‘Oh, no, no, no. I certainly don’t want that,’ he chuckles. Just thinking… it’s hard work looking after everything yourself. Hard work. Treating me like a daughter would, better really…’
‘Nothing’s too hard for me, don’t worry. You’re my dear uncle and I’m the only one who can look after you.’ She wipes some foam that splashed over her blouse. ‘I don’t want you to think I’m doing all this for the house. I’m doing everything because I feel it in my heart, because I must.’
‘God bless you.’
‘You know, I’ll bring the electrician tomorrow because the boiler in the bathroom doesn’t work, is that alright with you?’
‘But what? You aren’t thinking about the money, are you? Oh, don’t worry about that,’ her right foamy hand flaps the air. ‘He won’t charge much.’
‘I can pay it for you this time if you want.’
‘You can pay back later, don’t worry.’
‘Don’t mention it. He’ll come after nine so that he won’t wake you up, if it’s fine with you.’
‘OK then. I’ll come later to bring you lunch and check on him.’
‘That’s fine, yes.’
Argiro wipes the work surface with a wet towel and then hoovers and mops the place. He sits on the sofa all the time with his feet up, trying to watch the news on TV. More meetings of members of the Greek government with the International Monetary Fund, with officials of the European Community, more serious statements and important decisions to be taken, more austerity measures to be enforced. Microphones are shoved in front of disappointed, outraged mouths who voice their agonies and frustrations for everybody to hear but for the officials who seem to be keeping their ears shut, their minds set like huge, immovable boulders.
Soon after Argiro leaves, the bell rings again. The man shuffles his way to the end of the corridor, peeps through the door eye and then opens the door. A man with a dark blue suit and shiny shoes comes in.
‘I told you to come later in the evening. You might pop into her.’
‘I saw her at the bus stop, don’t worry,’ the man with the suit sits on the sofa opposite the T.V. He picks an old magazine from the oval wood table next to the sofa and flicks through. ‘You’re late old man.’
‘I haven’t got it. I have to pay for the electricity bill,’ he pulls a folded piece of paper with black and blue letters printed on it from under the sofa upholstery. ‘There, see? It’s the new property tax included, too much for me, too much.’
‘What do you mean you haven’t got it? I told you…’
‘Yes, yes, I know. I can stay here because I pay you this money but three hundred euros is too much for me now. I won’t be able to get by anymore. They’ve halved my pension, you have to understand.’
‘I’ve had offers for more than four hundred euros a month, you know. Look here old man,’ the man in the suit slams the magazine onto the table, ‘I won’t be taken in by this. It’s either you pay or you’re out of here.’
‘Just this month. I’ll pay you back next time,’ the man feels tears welling up his eyes. ‘I’ll think of something, I promise,’ he runs his fingers along his forehead.
‘Why don’t you borrow from your niece? She might help you out this time.’
‘Oh, no, no. She doesn’t work. Things are tough for her too. Please, Mr. Vangeli, I beg you. Just this time. I promise, it won’t happen again.’
Mr. Vangelis stares at the floor for a moment, then says in an impatient voice, ‘Oh, alright, alright, stop whining. But remember, this house is mine and I’m doing you a favour letting you stay here. If you don’t pay me the money we’ve agreed on, you’re out of here in a flash. Don’t think I’ll pity you because you’re as old as the hills. I have to worry about the interests of my own family, not yours. I’ll come back next month and you’d better have it all this time.’
Mr. Vangelis slams the door behind him and the man remains seated, elbows on his knees, his face cupped in his hands. What is he to do? His passion for card games, which started some ten years into his married life, has destroyed his and Katia’s lives. His daily visits to the casino of Loutraki, despite Katia’s pleas to stay at home, to put his money in the bank, closed in an account so that he won’t be tempted to spend it, her red, puffy eyes when he came back home early in the morning, her desperate threats to leave him which she never had the courage to realize, all these hurt him so much today; the Erinnyes like gnawing hyenas have been tearing at his soul day after day. He played incessantly until he had no money to bet, until Mr. Vangelis appeared willing to help him out, lend him the money, with high interest of course, until he had to transfer the ownership of the house to him to pay off his debts. Katia never knew about it. That would’ve killed her before her time. He promised to pay Mr. Vangelis a monthly rent and stay in the house for as long as he wanted. Until one day the house would be his to do as he likes. Argiro knows nothing about it either. The house is the icing on the cake for her and if she loses hope of ever getting it, well, she’d certainly change her tune.
And then he remembers. He scuffs his feet to the bedroom. He looks in the bottom wardrobe drawer, under some black and brown socks of his. His good watch is there. All shiny gold in its black box, just like it was when Katia brought it home to him, brand new. He takes it out and goes to the kitchen. Flicks a brown paper bag out of a cupboard and puts the watch in. He rolls the bag up until the box is tightly wrapped. Puts on his shoes, ties the shoelaces and then takes his cap and goes out the main door, the watch tight in his right, sweaty hand.