‘You might try something about the sea?’ said Carstairs, although I wasn’t really listening.
‘What’s that about the sea?’
‘You know, how it… looks in this light,’ he clenched his fists slowly towards himself as he said this, so I wouldn’t miss how profound he was implying the sea looked. ‘How you can just imagine Odysseus, or any of those other ones, hove into view across it, fresh from great deeds and terrible adventures, beneath the magnificent canopy of the sky. And something about the sun, as well. Something about the sun, and the quality of the light.’
‘Makes you think, doesn’t it?’
I muttered I supposed so, and resumed panicking.
We didn’t have much to do from our small office in Adiáforas. Most Greeks assumed we were spies, sent here to counter Communist influence. Perhaps that was true of our offices in Athens or Thessaloniki. It certainly wasn’t the case in Adiáforas. Our role here was simply to promote friendly understanding with the Greeks. We’d hear rumours of Communists sheltering in nearby villages, but Carstairs and I were really just expected to organise lectures by visiting British artists and academics, which in practice usually meant feeding off any scraps the Athenian office threw us. Adiáforas wasn’t even an out-of-the-way town so much as an out-of-the-way hamlet with a harbour, as well as some of the nastiest shepherds you had ever met.
Nikos, in particular. I rented an apartment on the harbour, and even though Nikos lived in the Old Town (some crumbling cottages and a church hidden in the hills amongst a spray of trees: cypress, carob, and pine) I saw him every morning as I left the house, waiting on our doorstep, once with a fully-grown ram tied to a length of rope, the sight of which made me jump. ‘Morning Nikos,’ I would say brightly, only for him to scowl back. I suspected Nikos of having an affair with my landlady, and wondered whether the ram was a lover’s offering. I asked her once why Nikos didn’t seem to like me. ‘He is Communist,’ and she gave me a look that suggested she might be too.
Athens had sent us three speakers in the year since I had been posted to Adiáforas, including an expert in 19th-century porcelain, who, when he arrived, was so hungover that he vomited twice: once on Carstairs’ shoes when the two of us went to meet him from his car, and the second time half-way through his talk, which, luckily for Anglo-Hellenic relations, was only attended by Carstairs, myself, and a couple of girls from Carstairs’ language school. The porcelain expert had wept over dinner that night, remembering some of things he’d seen on the beaches of Sicily.
We knew that the council’s Official Representative in Greece was irritated we hadn’t managed to organise anybody to come here ourselves and it had been a great relief when an old schoolmate of mine, now quite a famous poet, had agreed to fly over and give a reading from his latest collection. The recital was supposed to be tonight. I’d made Carstairs tell all the girls at his language school to bring their families. I’d even invited the Official Representative. It had been a terrible shock to receive a letter from said schoolmate that morning, with a three-week-old postmark, his apologies, and the news that a delicate situation had prevented him from making the trip after all. He didn’t like to say how he’d spent the money we’d advanced. I’d lost the rest of the day trying to work out how to salvage the situation.
Carstairs was standing at the window, looking out over the harbour, whistling, very loudly, a tune I didn’t recognise. Eventually he broke off, with a deliberate sigh. In addition to our work with visiting speakers, Carstairs also ran a small language school, under the Council’s auspices. It was attended by three girls and one older woman. Carstairs insisted that they were besotted with him. Having spent a year working in close proximity to Carstairs, I took this to mean he was in love with all four. The sigh bespoke some recent romantic disappointment, about which he was eager for me to ask.
‘You know,’ he said, after about a minute’s silence. ‘I might have something you can use. If you’re desperate?’
‘I’m not going to give a talk about the fucking sea.’
‘No, I mean… well, that wasn’t such a bad suggestion, old man. But, I mean I have something written. That I’ve been working on for a while. Look, we aren’t going to get much done here. Let’s have a drink, and I’ll tell you about it?’
I considered the fruit of my afternoon’s labours – a picture of me disembowelling my schoolmate, the treacherous poet, that I had carved into my desk with a penknife – and agreed. Carstairs tried unsuccessfully to turn his fan off. We could still hear it, flacking and stuttering, from the street.
It was another very hot day. We took a table outside at Elefthérios’s, a taverna on the harbour. Carstairs insisted on unbuttoning his shirt. He motioned to Elefthérios’s wife to bring us some beers, borrowed a cigarette from me, and began explaining his latest entanglement. It took two rounds. I grew drowsy with worry and beer and heat. It was one of the girls from his class, of course. Louiza. Her father was a terror, according to Carstairs. His disapproval placed a considerable strain on their ‘romance’.
When I said I wasn’t interested, Carstairs looked crestfallen. He claimed that I knew nothing of love. I thought of Nikos and his ram, and wondered if Carstairs might be right.
Nikos had offered me a chicken the previous day, albeit by proxy. ‘You want chicken?’ my landlady said when I came home for lunch. Lunch was lamb, so I wasn’t sure what she meant.
‘I asked Nikos about what you say. He said he has chicken – if you want?’
Carstairs always told me not to mind Nikos. Carstairs had been in this part of the world during the War. Fought very bravely, they said. He had begun shouting now, in Greek, at another of the taverna’s patrons.
I leant over. ‘What’s all this?’
‘Bastard owes me money.’
I’d settled enough of Carstairs’ debts to know that this definitely wasn’t true.
‘Leave it out. You said you had something I could use?’
He spat out of the side of his mouth that I didn’t understand the way of life round here, and began to explain the translation of The Odyssey, with original songs he’d been working on, although he interrupted this explanation a couple of times to ask if the man he’d been talking to was looking at us. I said that he wasn’t. Carstairs said a good thing, too, because he was minded to sock the cheap bastard in his no-doubt glass jaw.
He’d made Homer’s epic somewhat fresher, he claimed, ordering us another beer. The songs really brought the piece to life.
‘I don’t sing.’
‘I didn’t think you did, old man. I’d do the songs. Not sure yet, how I envisage it being performed eventually. Whether I’d want to stage it – with a chorus and dialogue and so on – or just keep it more of a chamber piece. But tonight I’ll bring my guitar, and just chip in when we get to a song.’
‘The talk starts at seven. I can’t learn The Odyssey in that time.’
‘No fear. I was thinking more of a staged reading. To be honest, chum, you’d be doing me a favour. Great to get some exposure for it.’
The air hummed and wobbled, thick with its absence of breeze. Wasps kept hopping about our hands, eager to drown themselves in our beers. I had no idea what I was doing, not just tonight, but in Greece. Beneath the magnificent canopy of Carstairs’ sky I felt convinced by my own absolute pointlessness. My weightlessness. The sea seemed too still; and too blue. I couldn’t even imagine drowning in it. It wasn’t that I wanted to throw myself in, but that I thought even if I did, I would merely float to the top, and Carstairs would ask if it was nice in there.
‘Good man.’ Carstairs smiled, and told me to pay for our drinks, and try to distract the fellow he’d been shouting at earlier. He’d pick up the script and meet me later at the mayor’s house.
The mayor’s house was towards the Old Town, almost falling from the hillside into the road, a tumble of stones and olive branches. Carstairs was practising the opening song when we met.
It wasn’t dark, though the evening was already caught in the squeaking of cicadas. A tiny lizard slid quickly between lattices up the whitewashed wall behind Carstairs then disappeared, like a nasty feeling in the small hours. The mayor’s wife sold fruit and vegetables from their small porch, and Carstairs had his foot on a crate of tomatoes, singing an invocation to the muse –
A man needs his home,
like a dog needs a bone,
And he’ll just keep on goin’
Till he gets there.
So tell me o’ Muse,
of that poor feller’ whose,
mind and crew he did lose,
On his wanderin’s.
‘There you are, old man!’ He fished me a sheaf of papers from his knapsack. The front-sheet read ‘Carstairs’ Homer’. He gave me a wink:
There were about 300 typewritten pages, with numerous additions or corrections in red ink. As I flicked through, he kept apologising for freshening the original up so much.
The mayor let us use the small terrace at the back of his house for our talks. He never attended himself, spending most evenings drinking at Elefthérios’s. His wife was here tonight, though, together with the Official Council Representative – the only person present wearing a suit – and the women from Carstairs’ language school. They hadn’t brought their parents. Nikos was last to arrive. Carstairs pointed out Louiza, a pasty, round-faced girl I had already identified from her refusal to engage with Carstairs’ repeated attempts to make eye-contact.
Most of them seemed to enjoy the show well enough. Even the Official Representative. They especially liked Carstairs’ songs: ‘That Ain’t No Pig!’ about the adventure on Circe’s island, ‘Feelin’ Under Sheep’ from the episode with the Cyclops, and Odysseus’ climactic battle with Penelope’s suitors, ‘How’s That Suit You Now?’. Carstairs had abridged the piece quite ruthlessly, so that the majority of the most dramatic moments were rendered in song. I couldn’t help feeling a little put out.
I’m no actor, but my Odysseus voice was quite good, at least. I tried to make it twinkle in places, bear the weight of all he had suffered in others, with a gravelly bass-note throughout.
I found myself directing much of my performance to Nikos. Doughy, with curly white hair, and the right side of his face falling away from the rest as if he had suffered a stroke, an uncomfortably ageing cherub. It seemed he might be smiling along with the poem. But he might equally be laughing at some infelicity of phrasing, or the inadequacy of my husky Calypso voice. I thought how you could solve a war with a wooden horse full of soldiers, even if it did take you ten years to come up with it, but civilian life was more resistant to the swift solution. When Odysseus returned to Ithaca, were all the shepherds there Communists, now, too? I began to think the wandering was deliberate; that Odysseus had put off coming home for as long as he could. No surprise Tennyson has him setting back out again. ‘Though we are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are.’
Carstairs continued making at eyes at Louiza while I spoke.
It grew dark. The mayor’s wife lit some candles. There was a small, enthusiastic applause when I finished, which, in my overexcited state, sounded a great deal louder. The Official Representative came over to shake my hand, while the girls from Carstairs’ language school gathered around him.
‘Most interesting,’ said the Official Representative.
‘You didn’t find it a little fresh?’
‘Yes, perhaps a little fresh.’
I felt a hand at my elbow. Nikos.
‘Good,’ he said, pointing at me.
‘I have something.’ He pointed at me again.
He nodded, and motioned for me to follow him to the front of the house. I was suspicious, of course, but didn’t think I could let the Official Representative see me refusing a bit of friendly understanding with the Greeks.
The front porch was extremely dark. Nikos rifled through the boxes with only a dim light from indoors to guide him. At one point he bashed his head against a box of what looked like lemons, and I think if I hadn’t been there, he would have cursed. Eventually, he found what he was looking for. He struggled to open something. Then turned round brandishing a live chicken.
The creature seemed relaxed, undulating its neck, and pecking at the air every now and again, inhabiting that peculiar rhythm chickens do. He handed it to me. I must have been a little stung by Carstairs’ comment earlier that I didn’t understand the way of life round here, or else flushed with the success of my performance, because I accepted the bird more readily than I might have done. An anxious ripple ran through its feathers, ugly, yellowing white, but it quickly settled down.
‘Delicious. Very good.’ Nikos pointed at the bird.
‘Yes,’ I nodded.
‘Yes. Now you –’ he pointed at the bird again, and made a gesture at first inscrutable, as though he were trying to wrench then ease something out of the ground, until I realised that he was miming for me to throttle it.
I had done worse. But it didn’t feel like that. Maybe I wasn’t as ready for a life I thought I missed, or maybe it wasn’t that I missed it, and something else entirely was happening, that I couldn’t hope to understand. I looked pleadingly at Nikos. He just kept nodding, and pointing at the chicken, and doing the throttling gesture. I started to flex my fingers in preparation. Almost purposefully. Still looking for Nikos to reprieve us: me and the chicken. ‘To promote friendly understanding with the Greeks,’ I said to myself, eventually, and made a clumsy grab for the bird’s throat. It screeched and jumped out of my hands, a frightened and threatening cascade of beaten wings that sounded as though a flock of its fellows were amassing to revenge themselves upon me.
Nikos swiped the bird from the air and pinned it to the ground with one smooth gesture of his left hand, and decapitated it using a knife drawn from a jacket pocket in an equally seamless move of his right. Blood sprayed over his clothes. A warm splash of it landed on my face. The beating stopped abruptly. Nikos put the knife, together with the chicken’s head, back in his pocket, and handed me the rest of the corpse. There was another smile, somewhere in his fallen face.
They were all drinking wine when I went back to the terrace. Nobody seemed to notice the headless chicken I was carrying. Carstairs was imposing a whispered conversation on one of the women from his language school. Not Louiza. Remembering to wipe the blood from my cheek, I took him aside. Was it local tradition to present a performer or a guest with a chicken, and invite them to slaughter it in front of you? I asked. You know, as a show of gratitude?
‘Absolutely not. Whatever made you think that, old man?’
And he went back to the girl from his language school, who I don’t think was giggling at his jokes as much as he thought she was, either.