Saturday, May 04, 2019


“You will forgive me If I light up a cigarette,” the polite old man asked as he reached for his lighter with gnarled, trembling hands, as we stood outside the church toilets. His bulbous bald head, covered in liver spots, fringed with just a wisp of hair, glowed in the morning sun. His suit, a deep, striped purple, hung loosely in folds around him like an ancient chiton, the tell-tale signs of a person who had lost a lot of weight since the time he had first purchased the garment.
 “I haven’t eaten any magheiritsa yet, this year,” he confided. “Ever since my wife became bedridden, my sister makes the magheiritsa, but this year my wife took a particularly bad turn and I stayed up most of the night nursing her. It’s hard. I had just finished my third round of chemotherapy when we found out that she too has been afflicted by the “κακιά αρρώστια.” All I had time to do, was to drive past my sister’s after Anastasi, and pick up a pot. It’s waiting for me in the fridge. Hopefully I’ll eat it today when my son comes over. He…”
At that moment, the old man’s telephone rang. Gesturing to me to wait, evidently wishing to complete his narration, he lifted the phone to his ear.  Between pauses in order to hear his interlocutor’s responses, the old man spoke:
  • Έλα Χριστός Ανέστη.
  • Τι; Δεν θα έρθεις; Γιατί;
  • Ἐχει football το παιδί; Σήμερα; Μα είναι Λαμπρή.
  • Ας μην πάει. Χάθηκε ο κόσμος αν δεν παίξει σήμερα;
  • Γιατί λες bloody; Μια ερώτηση κάνω. Κακό είναι;
  • Όχι δεν επιμένω. Αλλά τον περιμένει και η μάνα σου.
  • Τον έχει ανάγκη το team? Και εμείς τι είμαστε δηλαδή; Τημ δεν είμαστε κι εμείς;
  • Γιατί νευριάζεις; Πάσχα είναι, τι ήθελες να σου πω;
  • Μα έχουμε μαγειρίτσα.
  • Για βάλ᾽ τον να του μιλήσω.
  • Ετοιμάζεται; Καλά θα περιμένω.
  • Καλά, αφού είναι έτσι, άλλη φορά.
  • Πότε θα περάσεις;
The old man shuffled nervously from one foot to the other. As he held his hand to his head, his fingers began to scratch the back of his ear. I watched as the ear turned angry shades of deeper and deeper red.
  • Καλά, μη φωνάζεις. Πού είναι η μικρή; Δώσ᾽ τη μου να της μιλήσω.
  • Γλύκα μου Χριστός Ανέστη!
  • Χάππυ Easterdarli μου. Τι κάνεις;
  • Χάβαγιου, good?
  • Ο παππούς είναι.
  • Is pappou.
  • Η γιαγιά κοιμάται και πήγα λίγο στην εκκλησία.
  • Yiayia sleep en ai go to the tserts.
  • Πήγες χθες στο βράδυ στην Ανάσταση;
  • Γιου γκο to the tserts last nai for the Ista?
  • Όχι. Γιατί δεν μάνα μου;
  • Γουάι γιου no go to the tserts for the Ista?
  • Ποιανού γενέθλια; Ποιος γιορτάζει τέτοια μέρα;
  • Χου μπερντάι γιου γκο;
  • Εντάξει. Θα᾽ρθεις το μεσημέρι;
  • Γιου κάμιν for lunts?
  • Δεν θα έρθεις; Γιατί;
  • Γουάι γιου nκαμ;
  • Τι πελάτες; Δεν καταλαβαίνω τι μου λες.
  • Γουάτ πελάτες;
  • Pilates γυμναστική; Μα σήμερα είναι Λαμπρή.
  • Τoday no πελάτες. Ista.
  • Μα σε περιμένει η γιαγιά.
  • Yiayia wait for you.
At this point, the old man’s voice wavered, ever so slightly. Still he persisted.
  • Μα είναι άρρωστη. Κάνε μια προσπάθεια. Δεν ξέρουμε αν θα την έχουμε μαζί μας του χρόνου.
  • But γιαγιά sick. Maybe die.
  • Δεν μπορείς να χάσεις το μάθημα; Λίγο αργότερα;
  • Γιου καμ later?
  • Εντάξει κουκλίτσα μου. Κάνε όπως καταλαβαίνεις.
  • Ok λαβ. Νο γουόρις. You do what you understand.
The old man limply began to lower his arm, and it appeared that the telephone conversation had reached its terminal point. All of a sudden, angry, staccato tones began to emanate from his device. The man started and his body jerked as if he had received an electric shock.
  • Χριστός Ανέστη λένε πρώτα, νύφη.
  • Τι πρέσα; Ποιος έκανε πρέσα; Μια απλή ερώτηση της έκανα. Δεν την πίεσα.
  • Μα την περιμένει και η γιαγιά.
  • Μα έχουμε και μαγειρίτσα.
  • Τι θα πει δεν τρώνε μαγειρίτσα;
  • Να της πω sorry? Μα τι της έκανα; Χριστός Ανέστη, της είπα.
  • Δεν της κάνω έλεγχο αν πάει στην εκκλησία. Όχι δεν την μάλωσα. Μια μικρή κουβέντα κάναμε. Ναι το αν πάει εκκλησία είναι δική της δουλειά, συμφωνώ μαζί του. Μα δεν μπορώ κι εγώ σαν παππούς….
  • Μα δεν την κορόιδεψα. Πού να ξέρω εγώ γέρος άνθρωπος, τι είναι pilates? Σάμπως είχα και στο χωριό μου;
  • Όχι δεν της είπα να μην πάει. Το ξέρω ότι δεν μου πέφτει λόγος.
  • Μα η γιαγιά δεν είναι καλά. Να ξεχάσει κι αυτή λίγο. Να χαρεί.
  • Από πού κι ως πού ψυχολογική πίεση;
  • Δεν τα καταλαβαίνω εγώ αυτά τα γκιλτ τρύπια.
  • Θέλει να της ζητήσω συγγνώμη;
  • Μα γιατί;
  • Καλά, δως᾽ τη μου αφού επιμένεις και θα της ζητήσω εγώ συγγνώμη.
Blood began to flow from the tip of the old man’s ear, where his nail, compulsively scratching against the skin, had opened up a small wound.
  • Γλύκα μου, σου ζητώ συγγνώμη, αν σε πίεσα.
  • Sorry λαβ for the πρέσαΝο μπι upset.
  • Δως᾽μου τη μαμά. Θα σε δω άλλη φορά.
  • Give me mum. See γιου next τάιμ.
The indistinguishable tones emanating from the speaker this time were the dynamic spiccato of one who was master of the discourse. Mopping the blood with a folded handkerchief, the old man responded in antiphon.
  • Έλα. Εντάξει τώρα;
  • Εσύ δε θα περάσεις καθόλου;
  • Ε πέρνα για λίγο, έστω.
  • Ποιος θείος Πασχάλης; Πρώτη φορά ακούω για θείο Πασχάλη.
  • Μετά από τους γονείς σου, μετά από τον θείο σου, πέρνα.
  • Μα δεν χρειάζεται να μαγειρέψεις. Έφτιαξε η θεία μαγειρίτσα.
  • Τι θα πει δεν τρώτε μαγειρίτσα;
  • Να πω της θείας να φτιάξει κάτι άλλο. Μπορώ να πάρω και κάνα τσόπυ.
  • Vegan? Τι είναι τούτο πάλι.
  • Ναι μα τώρα που τελείωσε η Σαρακοστή θες να νηστέψεις κι εσύ;
  • Ποιος σε πιέζει; Δεν κατά…..
Abruptly, the telephone conversation came to an end. Defeated, the old man slipped his telephone into his pocket and a long, drawn out sigh emanated from the depths of his chest. His watery blue eyes looked through me, away towards the street and I immediately understood that I had tarried too long. Overstepping the bounds of propriety, instead of discretely removing myself from the vicinity, I had remained and thus witnessed the old man’s loss of dignity. Now, I was convinced, he was safeguarding his shame and setting things aright by pretending that I wasn’t there.
“I was telling you about the magheiritsa,” the old man unexpectedly broke the silence. “Did you have some this year? Where are you spending Easter?”
“To my infinite regret, both my wife and my mother are sworn enemies of magheiritsa and as a result, the indignity of an extremely delicious chicken soup is forced upon us instead,” I informed him.
“Chicken soup?” the old man scoffed. “How are you supposed to herald in Easter with chicken soup.”
“ I agree wholeheartedly,” I concurred. “Even with enough avgolemono to make your heart curdle with joy, it truly is a poor substitute for the real thing.”
“So what is your programme for today?” the old man enquired.
“A very long lunch consisting of a vast number of courses at my parents’ home,” I replied.
“Do you live close to your parents?” the old man asked.
“Yes, most of my family live in the same suburb,” I informed him.
“And where is that?” the old man asked again.
Upon processing my response, he commented: “That’s about half an hour away from where we live. Because, well I mean to say, solely as you seem to like magheiritsa so much, if you are not doing anything after lunch, you are more than welcome to come past and taste some of ours. Did I mention, my sister made it, to an old Messenian recipe. No pressure. Only if it’s convenient. No, it’s no trouble for us. Bring the whole family. My wife will be happy to meet you.”
And that is the story of how, for the first ever time in Australia, I came to become enmeshed in the throes of piping hot magheiritsa-consuming ecstasy, and in the recesses of some of the warmest hearts I have ever had the honour to meet, this Easter.


First published in NKEE on 4 May 2019

Saturday, April 27, 2019


It was a hint of petal that stopped her mid-shuffle. Relinquishing control of her lime-green vinyl shopping trolley, filled with the remains of flowers, she hobbled purposefully up the path. The sign was unmistakeable - a sole camelia, almost translucent, fringed by a cool frond of fern, interwoven skilfully between the rusting ironwork of the security door, and the frayed, flaccid wire mesh, sagging behind it.
"What's that mum?" called her daughter, as she lugged a shopping bag containing a bottle of oil towards the door step.
Ήταν εδώ," she whispered, clasping at the tightness in her chest as if to rip it open and release it. "Ήρθε."
"Who?" the daughter asked, disinterestedly, stretching out a hand to pluck the flower from its position.
"Μην το πιάνεις!" came the cry. "Άσ' το αυτού, άσ' το αυτού, λέω!" the pressure of her furrowing brows closing her eyes, as she spoke.
Flowers were always the calling cards of old, presumably down the centuries, even. Etiquette demanded that one could not conceivably hope to cross the threshold of another's home, empty-handed, "με τα χέρια ταράζοντας," as they used to say. And when, as was often the case in those times, one had nothing substantial to offer, a jar of preserved plums, a selection of fruit from the garden, a bag of tomatoes in various hues of yellow - was it not a dimly remembered teacher back in the village who had told her that the ancient Greek word for red covered a range of shades, from yellow, all the way to mauve, or was it he, that other one, who had told her this, commenting on the violet swelling of her lips, as he bruised them again and again with the rapacity of his moustache? The teacher was found murdered in the village square, his crimson blood weeping down his shirt. The only blood of the other's she ever saw however, was her own.
A bouquet of cucumbers. A profusion of persimmons. Anything to ward off the disaster of losing face, so precious to those who have next to nothing and are in perennial danger of being disposed of even that, altogether.
Flowers had their own etiquette. They signified absence and loss, which is why her mother had so hated them. Furthermore, to provide flowers as a visitation offering signified the absence of a capacity to grow foodstuffs. Providing flowers in a pot saved some face, for the opportunity was there for such flowers to take root in the new environment and thrive, much as they had done in this Manichean land, both rich and barren. As such it was a true gift.
Cut flowers, on the other hand, ranked as barely acceptable in the hierarchy of permissible gifts, excusable in the elderly and infirm but otherwise, only to be offered upon a face to face encounter in the most dire of circumstances. Instead, as harbingers of the shame of inadequacy, such flowers were to be left surreptitiously upon doors to mark a passing, when the recipient was not at home, signifying their absence and an opportunity lost. 
She remembered two types of flower markers. The most common, those visitors who would merely decapitate a sprig of verdant growth or some inconsequential flower from the garden of their absent hosts and weave it in or around, their door frame. Over the years, a pattern would emerge and it would be possible to discern the identity of the absent visitor both by their habit of choosing particular flowers from the hosts' yard and their manner of interlacing them through the door.
The other, was the usual preserve of the garden proud, those who obtained their ascendancy by disdaining to pillage the gardens of their hosts, instead, venturing forth with perfect and often rare specimens from their own gardens. As each of them had an encyclopaedic knowledge of each other's gardens, deducing the identity of the absent visitor by means of his flora was but a task of moments.
"I hate cut flowers," her mother would snap every time she would pick them from the front door. "They are dead and thus belong to the dead. That is why they leave them when our backs are turned. To remind us that when they don't see us, we are dead to them." Throw them in the bin. No, not out onto the street. The people will see." 
It was that Saturday, the Saturday before Easter that the camelia first appeared upon their door, a frond of a fern wrapped lovingly around it. Though she had trudged back from the service of the First Resurrection in a daze with her mother, the bloom was immediately discernible among the multitude of pensive carnations, red and white, studding their front door. It had been Good Friday the night before, and their neighbours had knocked on their door, expecting to find her within, for she had told her mother she would remain to commence preparations for the Easter feast. It was the flowers from the funerary bier of Christ, that they had left in their wake.
"A camelia? Who has a camelia? I know no-one. Strange." Her mother looked directly into her eyes.
She turned various shades of funereal porphyry and rushed inside to the kitchen, feeling the blooming of the life that had taken root within her, the words she had sobbed as he clutched her to him the night before, behind the station, still ringing in her ears: "It is easier for the camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for this situation to be resolved without you asking for my hand, and quickly." He had pushed her away, smoothing his sideburns as he chortled: "Then I will call you my camelia." And she fainted.
The pain had a shape. It was petal-shaped. A flower of granite composed of the palm and fingers of her mother's hand, thudding against her, crushing her with its impact and painting her skin various livid tones of red and yellow. A petal bedecked funeral bier of hope crucified.
"Λέγε μωρή σκύλα. Ποιος σού τό κανε αυτό; Λέγε ποιος σε γκάστρωσε. Απόψε θα γίνει η κηδεία σου." And yet, on that night, the Resurrection was imminent.
There were no flowers after that, though she was dead to the world. No visitations, merely silence, entombed in stone. On the balcony of her one bedroom flat, her daughter would ask why they did not have a few flower pots and she would invariably answer: "I hate flowers. Flowers are for the dead." Yet in the agonising hours just before dawn, she would hear the roots of that camelia seeking out the places where her wounds had been and when she would finally awaken to the sound of the neighbourhood rooster crowing three times, her eyes would glisten with the dew of petals, as she would deny them all.
Walking across streets that had turned their backs upon her, she would avoid the acrid incense emanating from the cracks in the mouldering edifices with the weed-strewn gardens. "Σαν ο διάβολος το θυμίαμα," the dandelions growing in the guttering would sneer at her before sinking to the ground on a leaden breeze. “Why do you place yourself among the living, when you are dead? You are not here,” the cross-bars of the sagging street lamps would flicker, accusingly. It was there that she saw him. Greying, his cream suit sagging from his frame, his yellowing moustache framing a smile of anticipation as he stretched to affix a camelia to a slashed fly wire screen door. 
She shrieked and the world went to seed.
"You know it's a stupid custom anyway," her daughter remarked as she put away the cleaning clothes she had used to wash and polish the granite of her grandmother's grave, and that of another, unmarked. Can't you at least call or text? Instead, you have to mangle the entire rainforest in order to proclaim your passage. It's horticultural narcissism."
The wind picked up, sending the branches of the camelia bush in the pot outside scratching against the window. "Τουλάχιστον κάποιος θα βρεθεί να μας αφήσει ένα λουλούδι,"she pronounced after a long while. "Εσείς τι θα κάνετε;"


First published in NKEE on Saturday 27 April 2019