It was too early, the light still brazen, the glare strong enough to bleach the purple out of the sea. As they struggled up the road the dust shot in plumes from under their feet and settled where skin was bare and moist. They could feel it on their lips. Zoe who had fallen behind, because the bigger girls were walking so fast, watched the dust gathering on Thekla’s shoulder blades. In other circumstances she might not have approved of Thekla’s naked back, but accepted it since the occasion perhaps demanded it.
Thekla had distributed the presents the four of them were carrying. Zoe had been given the flowers, as well as a vase to arrange them in. Afraid she might drop the blessed vase, she was holding the bunch of flowers too tight: expiring carnations, brown-throated lilies, and a single serpentine spray of jasmine, which waved, and flicked, and did not go with the rest of the bouquet. She was smiling like an idiot, partly out of drowsiness from the scent of over-heated flowers , and partly because she could never believe in her own presence in the company of older girls.
Stephania remarked again this evening, ‘Why this child? I can’t understand!’
‘Because she’s my friend!’ Thekla insisted.
Because she lacked complete courage, Stephania no more than muttered something which sounded like ‘your slave!’
Stephania was dressed in cinnamon silk and looked more expensive than anyone else. She carried the cassettes and the player, and as though to indicate her inclinations, her hips were already exerting themselves, her full, beige-coloured lips mumbling on the words pent up behind them.
They walked, till Stephania, stumbling on a stone, moaned out loud,
‘ … carry me home,
an’lay mah spurs be-sahd me …’
Thekla warded it off with a naked shoulder. Perhaps Thekla’s most serious flaw was that she had to be the originator. She was carrying the Samos sweet in the cut-glass gift bottle, the leather-bound diary, the box of loukoumia with its rosette of frizzed-out ribbon, a bundle of pipe-cleaners, and something of which only Zoe knew: the inscribed photographs of Thekla herself. Anyone could see that Thekla was overladen.
They walked and sweated, and the dust shot up, and the glare blinded everybody.
Koutsomarigo had been allowed to carry the cake. To have done so was unrealistic, Thekla realised after the mistake had been made. Marigo limped so violently, the cake too must have grown deformed from being thrown against the sides of its cardboard box.
‘Ach, my God! I told you it was early.’ Stephania no longer thought to swing her hips or mumble the words of suppressed songs.
In her backless print, Thekla was sweating worse than any. ‘Set up everything in good time. That’s how I planned it,’ she gasped back, and staggered on her new platform soles.
Following barefoot, in the company of these splendid girls, Zoe squeezed her flowers always tighter. Often she could not believe in her own existence, or her own name on hearing it pronounced.
She was this exceptionally thin child: hair, lips, wishbone limbs. Her thinness seemed to condemn her to a lower order, but she accepted her subservience. That she had a life of her own was apparent from her eyes, suggestive of seed on the point of germinating. And fire would sometimes leap in her. Even now, at this battering hour before sunset, she was moved to skip for a couple of paces, which the older girls walking ahead did not notice.
As they marched, the heat might have made them less conscious of their original intentions: Stephania darkening at her cinnamon armpits, the Koutsomarigo tossing the box, with the cake thumping at its cardboard walls, Thekla grateful for a lingering cool from the cut-glass bottle she was holding between her breasts.
Thekla Spatharaki was a tall, well-moulded girl, daughter of the head of a department at one of the local banks, and a mother who was artistic, and of better family, so she said. (It was Mrs Spatharaki who had stuck the spray of jasmine in Zoe’s bouquet as the girls moved off to the celebration.)
Thekla herself had reached an age when she had begun to aspire to what she would have been at a loss to define: it was so vast, so formless, it could have come under the heading of Life, or even vaguer, Love. More particularly, she might have aspired to be a mathematician if the headmaster, who took Mathematics, had not dismissed any such possibility.
‘If Thekla has a gift, and I don’t doubt she has, it is not that of mathematical abstraction,’ Kyriakos Lagopoulos decided on a morning when he had not shaved.
Though his judgment was probably less kind than cynical, its object would have liked to think it an attempt at kindness. She would have liked to think her love for the headmaster had not shrunk, at least on mornings when he had shaved, when his skin glowed, and she could overlook the fleshy bulges where the belt was eating into his stomach.
Nothing would prevent her continuing to love Kyriakos. There was no reason why she should not love both of them. She could not help it if she was born with a generous nature.
However questionable her feelings for Mr Lagopoulos (he was old of course, thirty-nine) it was not altogether surprising that she should fall in love with Artemis Meliou. Half the girls had crushes on her. Miss Meliou was as near as comes to a natural blonde, who painted her fingernails pale pink, and whose cleavage was cool and shadowy if, for any reason, she leaned over a girl’s desk. ARTEMIS: Thekla Spatharaki had printed it in capitals on the end fly-leaf of most of her text books. That ARTEMIS appreciated her, Thekla realised the morning Miss Meliou leaned over her essay on The Mill on the Floss, her cleavage displaying its mysterious, its almost mauve shadow, and complimented her on her English style, a gift Thekla had not known herself to possess.
Her gift might have become a burden (what use is an ‘English style’ to a Greek girl in a provincial town?) had it not provided an excuse for exchanging smiles with Artemis, or still more delicious, to lower eyelids on what was a shared confidence.
Even so, it did become burdensome, never more than on a corrugated bed, on long hot Sunday afternoons, the shutters cracking under pressure from the blaze outside. Thekla would lie with her arms upstretched, so that the two tufts of hair stuck out, and her rather large breasts stood up. Locking her strong thighs together, she longed, in this desert of Sunday boredom and physical exasperation, to give herself to some thing, some one, or more tangibly, the glowing skin of Kyriakos Lagopoulos (after shaving) or the supple arms of Artemis Meliou, propped on the desk as she bent over an English essay. (By comparison with her own arms, which she lay plaiting above her head, those of Artemis were almost supernaturally white.)
This was the kind of situation into which Zoe broke, carrying the laundry Tassia her mother had finished. Zoe nearly dropped the lot. Partially blinded by the darkened room, and aware of the figure on the bed as not much more than an elongated blur, she was distracted also by a conflict between the scent of freshly ironed linen and that of warm, naked flesh.
She might have remained too ashamed to look if Thekla had not at once started asking for advice. ‘Zoitsa, love, I’ve had an idea. Tell me what you think of it.’ As though she really wanted to know.
At the same time, from the sound of springs, Thekla must have rolled over, and would be looking at her, Zoe guessed.
So she put down the laundry, and found courage.
‘Do you know, Zoe, what I’ve discovered?’
She saw that Thekla was looking, not at, but through her, and as she launched her words, advice was probably the last return she would have expected.
‘I found out,’ Zoe barely heard, ‘that there’s only three days between the birthdays of Kyriakos and Artemis’.
For a Primary child, these characters from the Gymnasion were verging on the mythical, and in any case, Zoe had been mesmerised by the patch of hair between Thekla’s thighs.
‘I’ve decided to have a party,’ said Thekla, ‘for the two of them. With Stephania and Melpo. And Koutsomarigo, poor thing you’ve got to. And perhaps Taki Satzikis, because he’s almost one of us. And so amusing.’
Zoe felt even more confused on finding herself unexpectedly entrusted with news of such exceptional importance, especially as Thekla, in one fling, had ended up sitting on the edge of the bed.
‘I think it’s a great idea,’ she continued telling herself.
Zoe could only agree.
Suddenly Thekla became aware, and reached out laughing, and caressed the burnt stalk of a neck. ‘I adore you, Zoitsa! You are the next best thing to a little Moorish boy. You will come of course to the party with us. ‘
Zoe was either too shocked or too dazzled to answer.
‘You’ll be able to help us carry the things.’
Thekla would have enveloped Zoe if she had not seen fit to resist.
As the girls rounded the point where the road descends on Barba Thanassi’s, the boats were setting out for the night’s trawl; the sun seemed less avid, the tamarisks less woebegone.
In the shade of one of these dust-laden trees the girls paused for a moment or two, moistening their lips and wiping their necks.
Whether the men could see her or not, Stephania waved at the string of boats, and sang in her fluctuating contralto,
My love was a great big fish-er-man
Who brought me a great big fish.
I threw it on the coals,
And it tossed and jumped,
And said, ‘You will suffer the pains of love.’
And I did, and I did.
I tossed and jumped on the coals of love,
And never discovered who was to blame,
My great big fisherman or his fish.
The girls shrieked, but Thekla suspected that Stephania, who was rich, and related to the president of a bank, and who for those reasons could afford to cultivate eccentricity, might be trying to steal her thunder. She was sorry she had asked Stephania Stephanopoulou.
‘You and your old fish!’ she remarked when all effect had subsided.
‘Wherever did you find a song like that?’
‘It is a song,’ said Stephania, ‘that I made up myself in a moment of inspiration.’
Thekla would have liked not to believe that Stephania was possessed of a gift on which Artemis might congratulate her.
‘At least,’ she advised, ‘I hope you won’t sing these vulgar things at the party and shock the headmaster and Miss Meliou.’
Stephania, who had been to Athens, made the little clicking noise with her tongue.
It was Zoe Raptou who was shocked. Reared at the level of Stephania’s song she accepted all its implications, but would have liked to shield those who were born to higher prospects. Though flattered by admission to her friend Thekla’s circle, for a dusty moment she regretted their association.
Then they were stumping down the slope towards Barba Thanassi’s, its trellis with the vine shading the tables on the terrace, and the other side of the unmade road , the cube in which Aunt Marsoula had continued to preside over the refrigerator and the charcoal grill ever since Thanassi’s death.
A matter of kinship was the reason for Thekla’s coming to an arrangement with Thanassi’s widow for their celebration. Some of them vaguely remembered that Marsoula was connected with what Mrs Spatharaki considered the family’s less impressive side.
Now as the girls descended the hill, Marsoula herself emerged from the house and shaded her eyes to investigate. She was a squat woman with sparse hair the colour of an eggplant, a face converging on a Greek mouth (the corners almost permanently down from recognising the worst in things), and an apron tightly stretched across what could only be called a belly.
Thekla waved with all her arm, and shrieked, as though to get it over as quickly as possible in front of these other girls. ‘È, Auntie! We’ve come!’
Marsoula’s mouth had never carved deeper into the trout-skin surrounding it. ‘So it seems. Thekla, is it? And got up like some poutana.’
In her backless print, on her platform soles, Thekla Spatharaki might have been struck. She lunged straight through the doorway and cannoned off the refrigerator; the bottle of Samos sweet went clink.
‘I’ll tell my papa! I’m no poutana!’
The other girls became subdued. Nobody, not even Zoe, had ever heard her give way like a child, crying as though alone on a mountain.
When the storm moved farther and was heard only faintly from behind the door of the aromatic lavatory, Marsoula said, ‘The saints forgive me! How can I be blamed for what my eyes see?’
‘But Thekla’s good! She’s good!’
Koutsomarigo had plumped down on the first chair, the cake-box on the concrete beside her. Pure herself, she was inclined to see purity in others. Her face was shining with this purity of hers and the intolerable exertions to which her lameness had subjected her.
Marsoula grumbled, ‘Who’s to decide who is good or who is what?’ As often happens, her judgment had turned sour on her.
Zoe asked nicely for water to arrange the flowers in Mrs Spatharaki’s vase.
It was a relief to everyone, and they began to chatter about the reason for their being at Barba Thanassi’s.
Not long after, Thekla returned, her hair still wet round the edges of her forehead. Her tears had produced a radiance, or perhaps the sun was beginning to set above the mountains on the mainland.
She said, ‘Let’s arrange the things, children, on a table, or better, two put together, out on the terrace, beside the sea.’
Aunt Marsoula was mollified by this imitation of Mrs Spatharaki her distant cousin, always an object for wonder, if not affection. She called to her boy to give a hand in setting up the tables.
It was too early for any but foreigners to be sitting at food on the terrace at Barba Thanassi’s, and of these there were no more than three couples of some Northern origin, poking cautiously at their tomato and cheese salads and plates of stiffly fried fish. Their foreignness ensured that the diners were almost totally erased from the terrace and the landscape of the girls’ minds.
As she directed Babis in joining two of the tables and laying the sheets of greaseproof so that they would not blow away, Thekla breathed deep and groaned, ‘I could eat a few fried potatoes already!’ Resilience was one of her great assets.
Though Stephania might not have admitted, the other girls could only admire Thekla’s confident gestures as she gave orders, a slight wind blowing through her hair and moulding her breasts more noticeably.
Zoe could almost have understood all this love for this one and that which Thekla was always talking about. With her friend towering above her, she was struggling to arrange the wilted flowers in Mrs Spatharaki’s topheavy pottery vase.
‘My God, not that way, love! Too tight!’ Thekla had siezed the vase and, like some older woman, had started to re-arrange the flowers. ‘A tight bunch, they say, means tight in other ways.’ She glanced over her shoulder to see whether Aunt Marsoula was there, but she wasn’t.
Zoe blushed for her own inexperience. The wind off the sea and the special circumstances were making her feel extra thin.
‘Can you hear a car?’ called Marigo.
‘Too early,’ said Stephania. ‘It can’t be Kyriakos. He won’t have shaved yet, and Artemis will still be asleep’.
Thekla sent Zoe to look.
Who saw that it was not the headmaster’s small red car, in which herself had been driven through her friend’s insistence on the expedition to the church at Ayia Thekla.
‘And Zoe, my friend!’ Thekla’s vehemence dared the headmaster not to believe in what must have appeared, superficially at least, a most unlikely relationship.
His pupil’s whim was making Mr Lagopoulos grimace. He could have been on the point of refusing to be bullied by this large, unreasonable girl. If he had agreed to drive her to the church of the saint for whom she was named it was only at his colleague’s suggestion.
Now Miss Meliou had lowered her voice in attempting to conciliate. ‘The little Raptou. . .’
It implied, as Zoe knew: her mother is a laundress, and a widow since the father was foolish enough to stand in the way of a tractor.
Thekla, who had been offering her friend as an object for the headmaster’s charity, at this point pushed her inside the car. It was difficult to decide whether force or persuasion had carried the day. For her part, Zoe was forced to accept the daunting company of Mr Lagopoulos and Miss Meliou, and a situation over which she had no control. It was another incident in her confusing relationship with Thekla Spatharaki, on the treacherous waters of which she would be set bobbing like a cork detached from any of its practical purposes.
‘I am so happy, ‘ said Thekla in her mother’s voice, and clasped her protégée to her side as they drove towards the outskirts of the town.
Zoe grinned, not only because Miss Meliou had turned and was giving her the kind of look people lavish on a recently orphaned child, but because she had in some way to celebrate Thekla’s happiness, even though under its influence her friend was threatening to break her ribs. There was every reason of course why Thekla should feel happy, driven to her saint’s church by the headmaster, in company with Artemis Meliou, who was as close as you could get in their town to the film-stars in the magazines. So Zoe grinned, and hoped she had done her duty by those to whom it was due.
On the outskirts, beyond the cement works and the Motel Themistocles, Kyriakos Lagopoulos all but collided with a three-wheeled truck laden with crates of peppers and tomatoes.
Thekla shrieked, and called on the Panayia, and bit her nails, and clutched Zoe, and let out a string of subsiding giggles.
When the shouting was over, Artemis Meliou slid a white arm along the back of the driver’s seat. ‘You are not relaxed, Kyriakos,’ she said. ‘Relax.’
Thekla had relinquished Zoe and was sitting forward.
‘Are we on the right road, Mr Lagopoulos? I’m almost sure we took the wrong turning.’
‘Leave it to me, Thekla.’
‘But is it the road to Avlonarion?’
Kyriakos Lagopoulos did not reply.
Thekla Spatharaki blinked. She could have cried. The arm of Artemis Meliou, resting on the back of the driver’s seat, was of a white to taunt honest Mediterranean skins. At the same time, it seemed to emphasise the blue-black highlights in the horizontal waves, breaking, it seemed too regularly, from the nape to the crown of the driver’s head. Her teachers had her at a disadvantage. She must not hate when love was her vocation.
Zoe looked at Thekla. Who was hurting her again.
But they drove on into the countryside, into the scents of rigani and thyme, and the overall smell of dust.
Miss Meliou sighed rather theatrically, and tossed her head at the mountains to show she was at one with them. Thekla wished, or even prayed, that Artemis would remove her arm from the back of the driver’s seat.
She was soothed soon after on being reminded of a morning while she was still a child, when she had gone for some forgotten reason to a mountain village with her mother and Tassia (already a laundress, but not yet Mrs Raptou). In the lanes there was this same smell of herbs and dust, until on entering the village itself, it was overlaid by that of sour milk, and goat droppings, and extinguished candles. As they were passing the wall of a ruined house, a young white cat had started mewing, and after arching itself, jumped down upon her shoulders, and lolled around her neck.
‘Like a white stole!’ That no one in the car had shared her suddenly revived experience did not prevent her describing the tail end of it.
‘A cat I met. Long ago. At Palaiochora.’
‘I can’t bear cats!’ Artemis Meliou removed her arm from where it had been lying. ‘I only have to see one and my hair stands up.’
‘You’re lacking in Thekla’s youthful sensuality and warmth,’ said the headmaster surprisingly.
The teachers glanced at each other. Her high tinkle climbed out of reach of his brutish snort, and they looked away.
Thekla could not suppress a spasm of hate for this man. (Kyriakos!)
Stabbed by his cynicism, she frequently spent half a day out of love. But in this instance the brief glimpse of a silver sideburn and the Tartar moustache presented to his colleague roused rather than killed desire. And the straight nose, the faintly painted lips, the delicate cheek of Artemis she could have bitten off the nose at least, and eaten it. ‘I don’t know what you mean, Mr Lagopoulos!’ Thekla giggled.
Nor did she wholly, however knowing she had made it sound.
She was too aware of her own physical grossness, her greed for macaroni and fried potatoes, her hot hands and thrashing thighs. But otherwise untouched by man or boy, God knew. She was as pure as the Koutsomarigo. As far as you could tell of course. For who had entered the deepest thoughts of Marigo?
So Thekla thrashed in her corner of the car.
She had risen earlier than necessary, and damped her hair with cold water, and chosen her best kerchief, and picked a little bunch of basil for the pilgrimage to Ayia Thekla. After adjusting the cross which never left her neck, she had said the Pater Hemon. When she remembered, she prayed most sincerely, not to say passionately, in spite of the fact that many of her prayers remained unanswered. Her devotion to the Panayia and the whole army of blessed saints seldom deviated for long. The faces of many of them she could evoke in detail from having seen them depicted. Never that of her own saint, of whom she only knew as belonging to the category Martyr (First Class); she had read it in some calendar. If occasionally she had dared evoke the face of Ayia Thekla, it was in her own likeness, as she withdrew ashamed from the mirror in her darkened room. Ah, God, she should become a nun! Nothing less than an abbess. She saw the skin turned black and livery by the sombre coif surrounding it. However, it was grace that mattered.
Zoe took a look at her protector, who had subsided in the other corner of the seat, withdrawn, it seemed, deep inside her opulent body.
A tranquillity prevailed — of unbroken speed, and vast distance, as the countryside flickered past, a scintillating, scented flag.
The little Raptou was fortunate indeed. Miss Meliou drew her attention to a shepherd with his flock of sheep, and Mr Lagopoulos gave her a lesson on the history of their island: the Romans, Venetians, Albanians, Turks, and so on into drowsiness.
They had planned to make straight for Ayia Thekla and return to Avlonanion to eat. Everything was going according to plan, except that Mr Lagopoulos took a wrong turn in approaching the village and Thekla had to put him right. In doing so, she leaned forward, and was thrown against the driver’s neck. She was so overcome by the scent of his hair, and the more general smell of a man, that she fell back abruptly and struck Zoe with an outflung arm.
Finally a peasant directed them to the church. When it came to the point, it was difficult to locate, hidden from whichever enemy was current at the time of its founding, in a hollow choked by clumps of elder and the bush which some call the Chaste Tree.
Ruts forced them to leave the car a short distance above the church, a Byzantine hump of a building suggestive of some pinched and shrivelled village woman, not quite peasant, nor yet aristocracy, but with true nobility somewhere in her distant past.
Thekla was filled with hope. She had lost her bunch of basil, but grasped the coin knotted in a corner of her kerchief with which she intended to pay for a candle. She already burned to meet her saint.
She had forgotten those who had brought her and her relationship with both of them, and she had forgotten that poor child Zoe Raptou, so necessary to her as a kind of living talisman, if not conscience, when in descending the rutted path towards the church. Artemis Meliou almost fell.
‘Ach! Thekla, your hand!’
At the same time, seeming to need more than that, she thrust out her bare white, suddenly helpless, arm, and seized Thekla round the waist. In Miss Meliou’s state of overbalance, they were brought together like two sisters, or lovers.
It was not what Thekla had bargained for. On the other side, she was thrown against, and clutched at, her insubstantial conscience, Zoe. From ahead Kyriakos glanced back, and the Tartar moustache appeared to forgive them their frailties.
The party stumbled on.
Thekla had never been so close to Artemis, not even on the morning when she had leant over to praise the essay on The Mill on the Floss. Now, despite the heat of the day, her body felt unnaturally cool, and what had almost been an accident had not deprived her of any of her grace. Thekla grew clumsier for their intimacy. She could feel sweat trickling down inside her dress. But none of it prevented her experiencing a delicious tingling. She had never embraced Artemis. Their present contact almost dismissed any such need.
Zoe’s need was to extricate herself from Thekla’s arm. On doing so, she ran forward, not to join that awful figure the Headmaster of the Gymnasion, but to reach familiar ground, no matter if the actual structure of the church was unknown to her. She dragged at the door, which grated on corroded hinges, and after the initial but typical resistance, allowed her to go inside.
‘Poor thing! Do you think she’s happy?’ Miss Meliou wondered.
‘Why ever not? Everybody’s kind to her,’ Thekla answered sharply.
Entwined as they were, it surprised her that an extraneous Zoe should enter Miss Meliou’s mind. Perhaps it was the just reward for her own enjoyment of sensual tremors almost on the threshold of the church.
It was not Artemis, but Thekla who disengaged herself.
When they followed the others inside, it was at first barely possible to see, but they could hear the headmaster protecting himself from a child by giving her a talk on the deteriorated frescoes.
‘You see, Zoe, there were obviously two painters. This one more primitive, that one working in what we call the Macedonian style.’
Zoe was grinning up at a void. It made her feel a fraud that Mr Lagopoulos should be taking such trouble over her. And nothing was ‘obvious’, least of all the ‘styles’ of the two painters responsible for the ravaged frescoes. She was only aware of a sanctity which pervaded all the churches she had ever entered, and perhaps most noticeably the poorer, the more dilapidated among them. Because this was something she understood and cherished, she would have liked to be alone with it.
Miss Meliou and Thekla were crossing themselves. They did not appear to be paying attention to the talk the headmaster was giving.
Thekla was in fact too overcome by disappointment. Although there were candles priced according to size lying in heaps on a deal table, she had expected a ring of votive flames from which she would light the candle of her choice and add it to those already burning. Would it be a blasphemy to ask Kyriakos to produce his lighter? She was not sure, and Lagopoulos could be a sceptic, which would make her blasphemy worse. Instead, she unknotted the coin from the corner of her kerchief, and tried to lay it soundlessly on a tin plate beside the virgin candles.
Miss Meliou must have realised she was not giving enough attention to the headmaster’s lesson. ‘Would you say this head is the work of the more sophisticated painter?’ she suddenly asked.
Thekla believed Kyriakos would have thought it a silly question if Artemis had not stepped closer. As far as you could see, a smooth white arm was pressing against his darker, hairy one.
Thekla could feel the tears in her eyes, not so much of jealousy, as humiliation for her own spiritual mediocrity.
She began walking round the small church, humbly trying to identify the forms of the almost extinguished saints. In some cases damp had crept up on them, in others plaster must have been gouged from the faces by vandals.
‘Have you found your saint?’ Artemis called in what Thekla interpreted as a fulfilled voice.
‘I don’t think she’s here,’ said Kyriakos. ‘Time or man has been too much for her. The church is her only memorial.’
That should be some consolation, Thekla.’
It was all too foolish. Thekla wished she had not come. Love, whether spiritual or fleshly, had been driven out of her by the affectations of her superiors. Zoe Raptou, however poor and ignorant, was her true support.
But she could not clutch at the child under mocking eyes and in the church.
Mr Lagopoulos sighed and said, ‘Do you think we’ve done our duty by culture? What do you say, to a big brizola and a plate of fried potatoes?’
Zoe tittered dutifully.
That too, Thekla considered an affront. Kyriakos was undoubtedly a sceptic. In the circumstances her own imperious appetite has shrivelled, and she remembered how Stephania had once remarked that the headmaster had a Bulgar’s neck.
When they went out, stumbling down the steps into a white glare and the scent of languishing elder leaves, Kyriakos Lagopoulos laid his bare arm along her shoulders.
‘What is it, Thekla? Why are you such a martyr?’
‘Yes, is something the matter? When we came here to enjoy ourselves.’
Seeming genuinely concerned, Artemis engaged her from the other side, again by slipping an arm round her waist, so that the three of them were joined.
‘Nothing,’ said Thekla. ‘Nothing’s the matter.’
There should have been no flaw in their lovers’-knot. But here she was, defeated by what she had most craved, the touch of skin whether rough or smooth.
She began biting her lip in what she knew must be an ugly fashion. ‘Where’, she blurted (she could feel it rising in her throat like a giant bubble) ‘where is Zoe?’ And tore herself out of what was probably no more than a sympathetic gesture on the part of her teachers.
She went blundering behind the church, like a cow stung by flies she sounded to her own ears, trampling spears of grass-seed and a few faded flowers as she tried to escape her tormentors.
She was quite furious not to discover the object of her search at once.
‘Zoe?’ Her tormented-cow’s bellow was thrown back at her by the unfeeling wall of the church.
Knee-deep in yellow grass and herbs, Zoe looked up from the bunch of wild mint she was picking.
Thekla somewhat relented on seeing the fright in the child’s face. ‘We wondered where you were. They’re going,’ she said. ‘Run on and say I’ll meet them at the car.’
If no longer frightened, Zoe was still mystified, for she knew by her mentor’s expression and tone of voice that this was no matter of squatting behind the elder bushes.
‘I’m not ready. I must go back into the church,’ Thekla half-explained. ‘Don’t tell them. Tell them I’m coming.’
Zoe would have liked to follow Thekla inside. She would have liked to watch. The rites practised by women alone in churches fascinated her without measuring up to her own sense of sanctity. Now, as an honourable soul, she could only respect a friend’s motives, whatever they were. So she walked obediently away, her nose deep in the bunch of mint, to deliver an opaque message to the gods of the Gymnasion.
The wind had gathered force since the girls arranged the presents on the table. It was only by standing the player on one side, and the bottle of Samos sweet on the other, that the vase of carnations and lilies, with its single spray of unmanageable jasmine, was prevented from blowing over. Even so, Thekla had taken it upon herself to steady the vase, a duty which added austerity to her features and a mediaeval angle to the shoulder most involved.
As formally arranged as the presents they had brought, the four girls were seated at the table, under the trellis, beside the darkening sea. The mainland was smouldering with orange fire, while the gulf slithered from deepest purple into ink-blue. The tragic undertow in anybody must have responded to the sea-tones.
So Thekla began to laugh. ‘Sing us another of your songs, Stephi.’
Stephania shook her cinnamon shoulders. ‘Not yet. I am not inspired.’
But what a party!’ Thekla yawned as though she had a liver.
‘I told you we came too early,’ Stephania snapped. ‘Important people never arrive before nine or ten.’
Marigo assured them that her cousin was unreliable.
‘Taki at least!’
All the girls had a bit of a giggle.
Taki Satzikis, although a member of the Gymnasion staff, could not be taken seriously. He would not have let them had they wanted to. Youthful irresponsibility was the key to the technique he used to rivet irresponsible youth. He was young himself, though not all that young on his papers. One follower of the Takist cult saw him as a monkey on a spring, hairy, but sweet. In the beginning Stephania, and even Melpo, with her man’s mind, had tried to have a crush on Mr Satzikis. It had not worked. He loved to dance, more for himself it always seemed. He encouraged them to call him Taki to his face. It would not have surprised anybody if Taki had danced on his desk-top to illustrate a point in history. If the boys were more sceptical of the history master’s gimmicks, the girls in his class looked forward madly to Taki’s hours.
‘He’ll arrive and find us sitting at a funeral.’ Thekla’s gloom was almost complete, when her chair grated, and she pounced: she was pouring from the gift bottle into the glasses Babis had left.
Zoe found herself included.
‘To those who are unworthy of us!’ Thekla was holding her glass high.
‘Ugh! Sweet!’ said Stephania, who had been in Athens.
Sweet it was. A sweet fire lingered in Zoe Raptou’s throat, in her mind the image of a little snake she had once seen slipping between the stones of a wall. More intrinsically, it was as though, seated on the terrace with these older girls, she had been in some way initiated, admitted to an order to which she would not have aspired before.
She began to giggle. Was she drunk? Like her father, often, and Yanni the Goat on the night they locked him up, even on occasions, Mamma. She sipped a little more, and looked at the others for approval, till seeing they were not aware of her.
‘What about the cake?’ Thekla wondered. (There was no question of other food unless the headmaster paid for it.)
Marigo had stood the box on the table, but nobody had dared look inside.
Except by handfuls, there was no way of dealing with what they found: pockets of bloody cherries and drifts of spattered cream.
When Stephania had sucked the last smear of blood from her fingers, and wiped away traces of a cream moustache, she broke the seal of one of the cassettes. ‘Why not? She can always use them afterwards.’
The music was soon rankling on the air, the harsh sweet words provoking Stephania’s hips.
Thekla poured herself a second draught. ‘They can’t blame us for wanting to greet them — in high spirits. At their birthday party!’
Some of the diners on the terrace looked round to see what the shouting was about.
Only Marigo appeared to remain untouched by a situation in another world. She must have drunk her wine, for the glass was empty, and a drop hung glittering on her chin. The eyes shining more than normally in the elongated face revealed what could have been a manner of compensation: in motion a disjointed dervish, she was blessed with the repose of a Panayia.
Thekla had never envied Marigo before. Never had her own body, her own thoughts. been uglier, as she sat on this grating, possibly disintegrating chair, tying her hands in always hotter, stickier knots, her unsuitable dress increasingly creased. She might have flown apart if it had not been for the motor-bike. It tore through distance, dust, and after threatening to leap through the ear-drums of everybody present at Barba Thanassi’s, expired alongside the terrace.
‘Girls! My lovely girls! My Grecian nymphs!’
Bemused diners watched these sqealing nymphs (two) converge upon what, in the same context, was presumably a faun; after them a hesitating child; with a flailing deformity bringing up the rear.
Taki Satzikis, open-armed and open-necked, could not have been blamed for his worst faults.
When he had embraced his pupils (which debarred Zoe, to her great relief) Thekla could not resist asking, although she had decided on forgiveness, and was offering as loving cup a glass of Samos, her smiles not unmixed with frowns, ‘What made you do it to us, Taki?’
‘Surely, Thekla, you of all people, must have experienced the unforeseen?’ Then, when he had drained the Samos, and made a face and unzipped his shirt almost to the navel, Mr Satzikis called for a carafe of whatever Babis had to offer. He was dry, he confessed, although from the glint in his spectacles, Zoe suspected he had already quenched his thirst in the town.
Stephania had turned on 19th Nervous Breakdown (I worship Mick!’) and she and Taki were at once dancing opposite each other.
Stephania was sultrier, but could not fling her hips with half the history-master’s skill. He would dart in, but turn, and twist. always eluding what he saw as a threat to his freedom, always dancing for himself it seemed; though once or twice Stephania did succeed in laying a cheek on his chest and keeping it there for a moment or two as she danced against him. Eyes closed, her head might have been resting on her own pillow.
‘Oh, my God!’ Thekla moaned, and ground her empty glass against her breasts.
She too was dancing for herself, but because there was no alternative, her head held back at such an angle that her hair hung floorwards. If at times she opened her eyes at the trellised ceiling the vine leaves allowed her to catch a glimpse of a marbled moon tangling with a few filaments of cloud. And as she danced, she sang, but against the grain of the gravelly music. She could hear her sour discords, but that was how it had to be, as she sang her hate for those she loved. She clenched her teeth. With her mind’s eye, she saw herself carrying a dish, upon it a pair of heads.
At one moment in Thekla’s dance Zoe received the impression that she might be preparing to dash herself on the concrete floor, she was so thoroughly possessed, or it could have been the sweet Samos she had drunk. All were to some extent entranced: Marigo swayed on her chair clapping time, as though demonstrating that she wasn’t lame: while Stephania rubbed up against the hairy monkey of a schoolteacher.
She and Taki had never danced so brilliantly, Stephania felt, unless on the occasion when meeting by chance in Athens, they had gone to this disco in Piraeus dressed in each other’s clothes. As for Taki, to watch his appreciation of himself, he never danced but brilliantly.
In the circumstances Zoe began her own little shuffled dance, bare soles pricked by excrescences in the concrete, wishbone arms on the point of taking to the air, when the music ran out.
Thekla jerked her head into its normal position, her hair no longer whipped, but falling sleek around her shoulders.
‘What are they up to, Taki?’
Zoe thought Thekla, in spite of her sudden composure, had never sounded more savage.
‘Who? What?’ Taki drank the wire Babis stood offering.
Mr Satzikis’s smile seemed to be embarrassing the boy.
‘Why, the dirty dog of a headmaster! And the sow-goddess! Who else?’
Thekla Spatharaki shrieked. ‘The pigs of teachers who don’t come when they promise to!’
Though his presence and his alternate role of dancing clown spared him Thekla’s invective, Mr Satzikis chose his words very nicely while stroking his glistening chest. ‘You expect too much of people, Thekla. They’ll come I hope — if they promised. I passed by her house and Kyriakos’ car was parked outside. No doubt he’ll bring her when she’s ready. Ladies have faces to arrange.’
Thekla poured herself a full glass from Taki’s carafe. She knew that her lips were swollen, trembling. She was becoming that same tormented beast which had trampled the grass and wild mint outside the church of Ayia Thekla, in spite of the redemptive cross she wore, like Marigo, over the pulses in her throat, and the sign which, like Artemis Meliou, she made on entering churches, and the delicious mortifications of Lent before the great explosion of Easter.
Now it was Thekla exploding. ‘So much for Christian Greeks!’
‘Didn’t you know, Thekla, that if you scratch a Christian, more often than not you’ll draw pagan blood? That’s why the Greeks are how they are.’
He clapped his hands, and as Stephania had changed the cassette, they were dancing again. Taki was drawing Babis into the circle of the dance. Marigo had pulled herself to her feet, and while still holding the back of a chair, looked as though she might be preparing to take the desperate plunge.
Thekla was stamping rather than dancing, eyelids lowered, lips so tense you could see the pleats in the blenched skin, when out of the surrounding dark emerged a stocky girl wearing black boots, black pants, and a shirt on which the legend A COUPLE OF LEMONS was printed above the fruits in question (Melpo herself was noticeably flat). If she also wore the regulation cross upon her chest, it was because she would not have felt clothed without it.
Thekla hardly paused in stamping her dance into the concrete. ‘Do you think I’m speaking to you?’
Melpo recoiled slightly on catching the spray from her friend’s words. ‘Don’t rush me, Thekla. I only woke up a while ago.’ Her smile still had signs of sleep. And since then I’ve been getting here in these goddam pinching boots.’
‘Like the guests of honour!’
‘Guests of honour?’ Melpo was ready to split.
When she had recovered herself, though not her wrist from Thekla’s grasp, she prepared what both of them knew would be the messenger’s speech in the play.
‘I passed by,’ Melpo could not resist a titter, ‘and Kyriakos’ car was outside her door.’
‘Yes, he’s bringing her. Taki told us.’
Melpo shook her Afro. ‘I doubt she’ll want Kyriakos to bring her.’
‘But what do you know, Melpo?’
Melpo hitched her pants. ‘I shouldn’t have done it, but thought I would. I went round the side where the light was on, and looked through a crack in the shutters.’
And what did you see?’
Melpo heaved. ‘I couldn’t tell you!’ She was too convulsed.
Above the trellis the moon was spinning.
The messenger had not quite finished. ‘Kyriakos, they say, has an invalid wife at Pankrati. So you can’t blame him, can you? He’s a human being. And I’ve always felt Artemis was only a goddess in name.’
‘But he shouldn’t take his clothes off, Thekla.’
Then Melpo joined the dance. In her black jack-boots. The derisive lemons phosphorescent on her shirt. The hands of the dancers touched palm to palm, and parted, cheeks brushed, the figures of the dance failed to allow lips to fulfil their promises. Babis was learning; it had brought out the scarlet pimples on the surface of his porous skin. All stamping the concrete to dust. A thin cat flew from under their feet, and like a strip of black elastic, was catapulted into the night.
Aunt Marsoula, who had come out to curse Babis and call him to order, could not help laughing at all these poutanes, and the trello, the school teacher. ‘E, Marigo!’ she warned. ‘You’ll fall!’
For Mr Satzikis had stretched out a hand to the Koutsomarigo and given her courage to leave her chair and to lash out in variations of the dance such as nobody had ever seen, at the end of its chain the little gold cross jerking quite devilishly.
‘E,’ shrieked Marsoula, holding her hair the colour of egg-plant, what will these Germans think of us?’ As though she cared.
They, in fact, lingering over their fish skeletons and shambles of tomato salad, might have entered with understanding into a Walpurgisnacht.
It was Zoe who came to her senses first, for she had scarcely left them. Her own attempt at a few little, feverish hesitant steps had been brought to a halt by seeing her protector hunched, her dancing hair arrested, by whatever Melpo had to tell. Zoe decided not to look, but a tightening of her chest, and the lack of progress she was making against invisible rucks in the concrete, forced her to turn. By then Thekla was out of sight.
Thekla jumped down off the terrace with so little thought for the drop that the breath was driven out of her. Holding her stomach she strayed back and forth along the shore amongst the rocks and the plastic objects. She must have looked like some old arthritic peasant-woman. The lights along the curve of the bay were dizzying if she looked in their direction; the music throbbed as it came and went at Barba Thanassils. Only after she had vomited up part of her distress did the music stop pulsating in her, and she fell down upon a strip of sand, or pulverised marble, which the rocks allowed her.
Moonlight washed her whiter than Thekla might have imagined. In her stiller moments she was not unlike an archaic statue which time and sea had treated leniently, even respecting the anachronism of a gold cross, its chain eating into the marble neck.
Almost stumbling over this unexpected form, Zoe Raptou heard herself bleat, ‘Are you sick, Thekla?’
‘Panayia!’ Thekla disentangled the chain from those other necklaces of flesh, ‘Am I sick!’
As her friend began twisting and fretting her head against the sand by the light of a lopsided moon, Zoe was reminded of tales she had heard fishermen tell, of a giant fish washed up on beaches the other side of the world.
Thekla moaned. ‘Do you remember, Zoitsa, the day at Ayia Thekla, when I had to go back to the church?’
The breasts of this great restless fish were pointed shuddering at the moon.
‘Do you remember the saints’ eyes?’ Thekla could still have been drunk.
‘I’ve heard the Turks used to dig out their eyes.’
‘Zoitsa!’ Thekla laughed. ‘They say that if you take the dust from the sockets of the saints’ eyes, and sprinkle it on the food or drink of those you want to love you, then — they will.’
Zoe shivered. She wished she did not owe so much to Thekla Spatharaki.
‘Well, I took the dust and sprinkled it on the food and drink of both of them — afterwards at Avlonarion. But it worked the wrong way, Zoe.’
‘You dug out the eyes of the saints? Like a Turk?’
‘Worse! Oh, worse!’ Thekla cried. ‘I dug out the eyes of the Panayia.’
Zoe had shrunk against the rocks. She would have liked to take hold of something consoling, but nothing offered itself except a Pepsi bottle, and a plastic spoon on which the moon had spotlit the word AMERICA.
Thekla sighed. ‘I am this Greek mess Taki was talking about.’
On the terrace above, Melpo was sitting open-legged, shelling pistachio nuts for those more exhausted than herself. The shells fell tinkling in the silence where the music had been. Taki must have disappeared, the Babis too, for Marsoula’s voice went calling through the night for her lost lamb.
Thekla Spatharaki might have been twisting in her shroud instead of the backless print: she had lost one of her platform shoes.
‘We must save one another.’ The stranded monster was writhing worse than ever. ‘Can you love me, Zoe, after all?’
Zoe could hardly reply for what she had experienced of love: her own parents on the other bed; the babies got by Costa and Vaso the other side of the dividing wall; the knife Yanni had used on Toula when he caught her with the scissors-grinder — this was what she knew of Love. And Life too, it seemed, for all the candles and the prayers.
While stretched on the eroded marble Thekla Spatharaki continued holding out her hand.
So Zoe answered ‘Yes’, and because it meant in some sense ‘No’, she felt her teeth would have looked very small if Thekla had been in a state to notice. But she was lying on her back staring at the moon. She seemed to have forgotten she had offered her hand, which Zoe took — because what can you do? Her own fragile bones were trembling as she accepted this monstrous moonlit fin.