A Time of Lost Inertia

By Tom Willis

This is the fourth part of the (increasingly) loosely plotted series We Other Greeks. The third part can be found hereThis piece is 13,500 words long, and for easier reading can be downloaded as a PDF.

 

A circular coffee table is in the middle of the room. The pattern of the tabletop is that of a mosaic swirl. The swirl, emanating from the centre of the table, is coloured with faience, and is highly polished. Helena’s face hangs above it, studying the documents spread in disorder across its surface. These interrupt the flow of the swirling pattern, so stop the table providing a whole and complete reflection of the things suspended above it, which would be impossible anyway, the faience being dark in colour and the mosaic breaking up any solid reflection. 

 

De re militari, Αἴγυπτος

I met another lad who was going off to the front too, so we pall’d up. His name was Taffy and he was a professional boxer when not at war. We were put up in some barns before the voyage which were rotten with fleas and mites resulting in the most awful bites, swellings, and infections, I’ll tell you for squat: it is a terrible shame for a man to die of sickness before battle. We slept outside for it was a cool evening. Later I lifted the groundsheet of a collapsed tent in the desert in Egypt to put it away before we moved off and there were two (2) scorpions under the sheet. I saw them return to the rocks, slipping between like water, and warned the other lads to watch out as the place was full of them and centipedes (which I hated—especially the greasy marks they left all over the walls of the mess and billets when crushed with a wadded napkin, the traces of their legs and antennae visible long after, forming a kind of weird script across the walls of camp). Taffy used to go scrumping from the fig plantations in the delta, proper schoolboy stuff, bringing back a knapsack of fat juicy ripe figs big as a fist, and we’d sing in our mess—when a traveller sings in the night he may well close his eyes to anxiety, but it certainly doesn’t help him to see things more clearly—munching the delicious figs, with brandy in our cups and stomachs. Tho’ Taffy got home early with a shoulder busted by shrapnel: for you the war is over, back to Bavarian Wales. 

North Africa, ’42.

 

Helena lips are pursed in contemplation; she exhales through her nose like a doe at rest, tea-steam escaping from her nostrils out into the glade of Henry’s serene apartment. 

 

De re militari, Κρήτη

With partisans in the mountains. They set fire to the Swastika hung in the village overlooking the pass. It caught quickly doused with petrol and burned with clear white wind-blown flames on the greyish soil among the gladioli and scrub and stones.

    One of the shepherd boys shot; requires suture.

    Tonight we travel to the foothills of Mount Ida.

    A lot of the Englishmen out here are Romantics. Not me. I’m here for the grit. The close contact. The subterfuge.

    The action here is good: Mars makes us quick in work

Crete, ’43. 

 

‘Did he really speak like that, write all of this stuff down?’ Helena said.

 

‘Yes. And that’s one of the originals, I haven’t tampered with it at all.’ 

 

‘Are you sure?’ 

 

‘Yeah. Well, fairly sure.’

 

Aris hit him through the chest from behind. The soft crack and then we saw the feather of dust at the end of the trajectory. It was my Sten he hit him with and the 9×19mm Parabellum (PREPARE FOR WAR) glided right through. He dropped his cigarette (Eckstein No. 5) and it smoked in the rosemary bushes as he went down. Andreas hit the other one. Even the Sten has its own ars poetica. We stripped the bodies of ammunition, weapons, fags, cloth. Two (2) Gestapo agents liquidated in this powwow

    These gunshots bring back a memory from childhood. (It gets in my dreams too.) Morning, in a valley. Heather in my boots. Gorse in my hair and jumper. Sky pure blue sorcery made of high crisp clear sea-driven air. The shotgun held so firmly to my father’s tweedy shoulder. Throb of it through his body. Thump of powder and then the sensual cordite perfume coming softly through the smoothbore. Pellets finding the cream and tan breasts of game birds. Reports long-echoing through the valley. They fall from the sky plump and messy. My mother with her fuming gun.

    Here we follow the ibex trails. 

Crete, ’43.

 

Helena’s features are choppily replicated in the table, for in places not hidden by papers the highly polished surface… gleams

 

Got off the road and ducked behind rocks to avoid being machine-gunned by a strafing Messerschmitt 109. A Matador lorry packed with maps and a fraction of our loot goes up in a FIREBALL: estimated £450 in grave goods lost, inc. mirror, bronze, Etruscan, 350-250 BC, with image of two naked women bathing / mirror, Egyptian, copper alloy, 1550-1069 BC, no image but the handle is shaped like a papyrus stem; and three (3) mummiform figures. One with broken bandages had exposed teeth like a snarling piranha that gave me the willies. Need to inform smugglers that there will be no shipment this month. 

    Over the border crashes the enemy.

North Africa, ’42.

 

‘How about that one?’ Helena asks, pointing to a sheet of notepaper.

 

‘That one is original too. Like I said, any alterations are merely to help them make sense, insert things I remember him telling me, or what research has dictated, stuff he might have got wrong.’ She impatiently tamed a strand of hair, placing it in one smooth movement behind her ear, and returned to chewing a pencil stub, then a strip of gum.

 

‘I mean, did he type that one out, or did you?’ 

 

‘He did.’ 

 

In 1942 I was based in Egypt, aged 26. I had already seen a bit of action in France, nothing much. First thing I did on getting to Egypt was I jumped in a troop transport going out of town. The Pyramids and the Sphinx are a wonderful sight with a full moon overhead. Made my way back into Cairo, don’t remember how, had supper then went to the cabaret, got a good buzz on, then to the place with the Cypriot belly dancers, for watching only, shame, then back to camp, stinkin’ drunk, exhibiting what Sergeant would no doubt call filial rebelliousness. “The Protectors of Islam enter Cairo” the papers say. 

    The War allowed me to see Europe, to watch it warp and flux, to change it too—be a part, a wild atom, a leaping electron, quark, of destruction and creation (and allowed me to make some little money in the antiquities trade). 

    Back in tent still drunk read cheap copy of Oresteia belonging to Jim, broke wind, then took it to bog with me. 

North Africa, ’42.

 

He has your dilettante interest in ancient poetry!’ Helena said. 

 

In a lull in my doctoral research, now funding-less, having spent the year’s stipend in tavernas and on ferry rides, but wanting—needing—to stay in Athens, my mother fortuitously tasked me to write up my grandfather’s war, with a small stipend attached. Another begged fellowship at the British School at Athens covered the rest, gave me a room and sheets and breakfast. 

 

My grandfather’s original documents were largely post hoc diary entries, but there were also handwritten notes: missives and jottings, junky comedown notes from the ’60s. I wanted to give them narrative and form, but was equally enchanted by their fragmentariness. I wrote on the very fixed-up typewriter my grandfather used, to get that lovely frisson of authenticity. I even used the same paper, brought from an attic in England. Sheets he never got round to using, fly-speckled and warm-coloured with age. What a thrill. 

 

Commandos took the beach first. Most died under the 88s. Awful mess. A clump of them got hit with phosphorus (ΦΩΣ). They smelt like cooked stuff tallow burning roast beef (proper rosbifs) it’s a terrible thing to say but true. As I went up the beach the strangest thing was I wasn’t scared a jot. The air crumped under the weight of shells. Heavy artillery. I felt their waves by Jove. It was like the end of air. Fighter jets above streaked away from the ack-acks, tracer rounds whistling brilliant colours up to them. A light Italian M14 tank goes up in a burst of cordite. O it’s a lovely war. In the morning yellow smoke bombs to let the RAF know not to shell the village. Johnson shot one of the POWs—scruffy young chapped-lip dehydrated Teuton—point-blank POWWW.38 in the chest. I have rarely seen a man more furious nor vicious and I respected that. He did not give the gun any rest and I became an initiate to war. 

North Africa, ’42.

 

I scrawled all over the documents, which Henry thought rather unhistorical, dishonest, and sloppy: YOU’RE DEFACING THEM

 

But I loved to mimic a document’s realism, to get the handwriting just right was a real joy, as was hearing the words hum to his tune along with the rattle of—his—decaying typewriter keys. If a few of his diary entries were changed and reshaped in this process, it was worth it: I learned of and from him. 

 

‘How do you tell them apart?’ Henry asked. 

 

‘At this point I am not sure myself. But I am not trying to construct something perfect,’ I said. 

 

News on the radio transmitter regarding the bombing bad. It gets closer. I feel it in my toes. Rifle jitters to the floor. The petrol dump gone up. What a blaze. Like flowers from the desert at first then black smoke in the sky. Sand around me plumes like something out of a science fiction flick. Things disappear, and reappear different. Valour is the chiefest virtue I learn all over again.

North Africa, ’42.

 

Our cadences and rhythms were slightly different of course; I could never quite capture his intonations, the slang of the period, could never quite feel like I was there. Please note, however: I made very few changes overall.

 

I took a shot at them coming over the trench with my .303. They thought the Panzer (pantex) would protect them and they were right it did ping ping they duck away. The turret moves inquisitively, like a buffalo responding to a gadfly. Thank god the RAF came, though they did spoil the fun a bit and the Krauts’ retreat was too quick. Popped a few on the run dukka dukka ping splat, pink mist painting the air a gorgeous, blossomy springtime hue, but not a good day’s Jerry shooting truth be told. We’d played a prank on Jim the day before, a real shame for he was sore about it. Now his face cleaved in two, a real shame, a good man. I saw it all so plainly. The bodies lined up in white sheets. We were told not to touch them and so we didn’t.

North Africa, ’42.

 

A paper pack of cigarettes in my pocket. Cleopatra in gold made out hieroglyphics-style in the logo.

 

KING SIZE

Pyramids and mosques on the back of the packet

 

SPECIAL COLLECTOR’S EDITION

 

I light one for Helena, calling her the nickname she hated: Dora. Dora—I tease her—anagram, ador; Latin: coarse grain or hulled wheat. Emmer, farro, spelt. Proto-Indo-European for “dried stuff, grain,” collective. Where does that get you? Adore. 

 

Scraggy parkland stretching out infinitely, equally all around: cypress trees, occasional sprouts of slim flowers, the brekekekekek of sour frogs. On the bluff with the wooded copse, Helena takes another cigarette from its packet. The filter-tip is red, glossy, and shining. Even the cigarettes are special edition. Her nails are painted, and imbricated with flakelets of glitter. This three-square-inch snapshot (cigarette, bright nails, bronze fingers, blue sky) is desperately Californian, which, squinting bluely, is all she sees for the moment.

 

‘I am, I think,’ she says, ‘more and more interested in the particulars out of which grand universals arise.’

 

She plucks a loose strand from the head of the cigarette, then brings the navy-blue-tipped match burst orange to it. 

 

‘And what about petty universals?’ Katy says.  

 

She waves her question off, saying, ‘I am starting to feel grim, stuck in the apartment, everyone working at such close quarters. I cannot wait until we are all done and can get outside—like this—again, more often.’

 

‘We should all be done soon,’ I say.

 

‘Mhm’ — with a daisy stem in her teeth, lips.

 

‘What are you doing?’ 

 

‘I am doing astronomy, scrying the blue sky,’ she says. 

 

‘Tell me my fortune.’

 

‘You are doomed darling; evil luck,’ gesturing at the blank domed sky.

 

We walked through the yellowed grass of the parkland, blackberrying in thistly bramble lumps, dreaming of fires with violet teeth and lips, then swerved from all the natural chaos and sat in a plateia, slumped in the sun, every second a starry naphtha flare fusing the next into a blazing continuum.

 

‘I’d better get back to my work,’ I said later in the yellow twilight. 

 

‘Yeah, we all had.’ 

 

Men’s faces look funny when firing at night. Lit up different in the flash of gunlight. Taffy went very still next to me. (Earlier in the war Taffy had nearly died when a Nazi agent put ground glass particles into his food in BAGHDAD.) The sound like a wet teabag PAT in a steel sink as the bullet went into his shoulder and travelled the length of his body like a nasty little parasite. The snipers had it easy that night with the tauntingly bright magnesium moon. A round plopped into the sand just beside me sharp and sweet and soft. Yet we took the town. The first thing done was to brew up some tea and Bill said some words for Taffy. In the afternoon we played football.

North Africa, ’42.

 

Helena lights a cigarette in the orange light of the restaurant. The food comes through the filmic jalousie door to/from the kitchen click clack click click clack click click clack click.

 

‘I am not sure,’ I said, ‘that my mother ever really recovered from her father’s war. He lived and lived. And seemed fine, apart from the decades of alcohol and drugs, and the hallucinations towards the end: reportage from the frontlines of disassociation. We never really knew where it came from, the cash which powered his louche life. He spoke vaguely about business connections made during the war. But my mother inherited so much more: everything that he’d done and seen; the neuroses, the ticks, the horrors. I see bits of him, of her, in me, and not just in the mirror, in the sway of my arm, the crook of my nose, the wave of my hair, in the odour of ancestry.’

 

Plates were clattered down in front of us. 

 

Our waiter then said to a man in a striped apron with a full moustache: ‘My wife, who as you know works here at our restaurant in the capacity of a casual supplier (she forages in both the wilderness and farmers’ markets for the rarest produce available), went into town with one of the cooks today. She asked for something in the butcher’s but was told ‘it is no longer obtainable and never will be again’ and the butcher instead offered her something else adding ‘this is good too’ as he held out a new meatstuff gelatinous and shiny on the side of his stiff machete. She rejected this substance and went on to the woman selling vegetables in the square, who tried to get my wife to buy a peculiar new vegetable that was tied in bundles and resembled a tuber but was black in colour and matte in texture, and my wife said ‘I don’t recognise that: I won’t take it.’ I asked my wife if she had been dreaming but she insists she was not and anyway she is confined to bed with a fever and that is why I am going home early, Mr. Sous Chef, to tend to her in her sickness.’ 

 

When they opened up for the first barrage it shook the ground: eight-hundred-gun volley, magnificent, plus the rejoinders, the return fire, roar of Hell and Typhon. Many men crossed themselves, the ones who weren’t blown up, and I imagine much the same was going on on the other side. Hell arrives! Hell returns! Swathed in pandemonium! At the back line the air was changed, and charged with cordite and fog of smokescreen. We had new self-propelled guns, American 105mm Howitzers mounted on a tank chassis with a circular turret that looked just like a pulpit + an M1919 Browning machine gun, so the whole thing was called a Priest. We worshiped as it shook its diabolical sacrament into the sand. Boston twin-engined bombers like bloated herons flew over with their payloads and we could hear the banshee-shriek of the Jericho-Trompete sirens on the Stukas’ wailing wings as they came down. There was an awful lot of superhot metal flying about. An explosion peeled a Priest open nearby. As we advanced, machine gun nests and hostile foxholes opened up on us, and there was more heaving noise and brilliant light: All Day Permanent Red. I saw an Australian captain with an impressive death-drive smiling that happy smile of young men who have been under fire for the first time attack an emplacement solo, disembowelling the whole team. We heard the Germans and Italians scream all the way down to dear Hades. The Australian captain was killed on the 31st but not before he’d done a lot more killing and trying to die. As I lay listening to the exciting bullets crackling like extreme static above me, hearing with delight the snap of bullets, the hot cannon fire, reloading my rifle languid-like, taking my time, a scarab beetle came out of the sand and insouciant as anything strode across the battlefield right before my face, parallel to the inferno of burning tanks, blistering camouflage-paint, artillery, oil, petrol, bullets, and torn men. The scarab brings life from death as it lays its eggs in the dead; death and regeneration. I took him between my fingers and his legs wheeled and wheedled uselessly and I took him up gently and kissed his black and shining carapace and placed him back in the sand and got on with it. The ΒΕΣΜΑ boys were ahead and we eventually took the position marked on the map as ours to take. Hold on a minute mate, I’ll just have a cigarette. I’m not a coward you understand, just careful Keith said just before dying. There was an exchange of air and pressure and we advanced to the north. We rode on a Valentine tank the rest of the way, the jolting and vibrating mechanical movements of which, I am ashamed to say, were somewhat arousing. Then we got off and dealt with a sniper. It was like this: I saw him stick the knife in his arse and twist it, Ares bellowing in his lungs and in his steel. He lights a cigarette from the stub end of the one before, real calm and cool. I had a constant headache that day on the bank of a deep dry wadi and on the other side were a whole crowd of Germans standing around a beaten-up Brit, who was tied to the rails of the Alamein track. A tank was racing towards him. I knew that he was being executed on a charge of sabotage and that I had the evidence to save him if I could get there in time. But the signed confession in my pocket remained unread, always. My gun jammed WHOOSH: and I woke up to the bullets still around me and I watched the scarab disappear into the silvery liquid sand and the Australian captain charges but does not die. What an apocalypse. Ushabti perform manual labour for the deceased in the afterlife, bondage in heaven. I wished I could summon one and see it marionette across the battlefield with curved blades doing all my wetwork mokroye delo as I lay in the rumbling sand, smoking shag and drinking whiskey from a tin mug, watching the show, but I have to get up again on my tired legs and charge over and over glint of bayonet no time to think of grapeshot in the Nile Delta arcing once towards sails and masts, Napoleon before the Sphinx A Presence in the hot invaded land / The huge hurt face accuses, / And pardons nothing, least of all success, the pyramidal backdrop to all this war and death, Sabotage the railways! As Nietzsche warned us look what they lead to: holocausts. We did a number on the railways here, Nietzsche, are you happy with us for this sacrifice? then we were there among them close as breath.

North Africa, ’42.

 

‘The hotel my father booked for us when my brother and I were younger and he took us to Cairo was bombed the week after we left. I always thought that was madly exciting?’

 

‘You told me that was at the Red Sea,’ Helena replied.  

 

‘Ah, either. I was young, I don’t remember.’  

 

She picked at a stray thread on her Fair Isle knit jumper, then cocked her head. 

 

‘I was following a thought of Plato’s…’ she said, before trailing off. 

 

Spring in Crete like a wild Cézanne, flowers and flora like frenzied Bonnard. White mountain peaks beneficently in the background of our operations like a sleeping Zeus. We lay wrapped in sheepskins in the cave. Clumps of mossy vegetation concealed the entrance so we could at light a substantial fire. Goat cheese, wilted leaves, and unleavened bread to eat. Anise-flavoured hooch—Raki—to drink milky white when mixed with water good and fiery. An armoured car rumbled through the valleys below. We had been tracking it for days, watching its slow, arrogant journey from Kraut base to Kraut base. Aris was desperate to take a pop at it, at odds beyond arithmetic. Aris, wonderful sniper: a name unmusical to German ears. He wanted to unearth the Granatwerfer mortar captured during the Battle of Crete and buried nearby for future use at such as a moment like this and let the car feel its hefty roar. We were on a ridge looking out over the stalled thing. They were tinkering with its engine, too much at ease, erotically vulnerable. I felt the excitement of action fizz in my blood. A large neurotic ant crawls onto my hand, its antennae fidgeting the air and I pluck a flower from the ground like pulling daisies lazing around in a field in France waiting for the ships to come calves itching from puttees wound all wrong the splintered stock of my rifle uselessly relaxing in the tall grasses. All points of the compass point towards the Enemy. Aris raises his rifle. I love this, the sudden violences and the long stillnesses. Listen: hear the tripod clank, the blood flow. Eros and Thanatos pipe sweet songs in my ears. My hands grow hot and stiff against the Tommy-gun. But I lower Aris’s rifle gently with my fingers, and shake my head: not today. I feel his rage pulse. Anger’s my meat; I sup upon myself, and so shall starve with feeding, come, let’s go: Leave this faint puling and lament as I do, in anger, Juno-like, come, come, come. There was a detumescence, the anticlimax after promised action is undelivered: a feeling impossible to shake.

Crete, ’44.

 

I took out my pen. I appeared to tremble and fumble the whole time when I set myself to write, and yet I never completed any work I had begun, having so high a regard for the greatness of the art of historical biography and military history that I discovered faults in things that to others seemed miracles. Writing — which consists in letting fluid flow from a tube onto a sheet of white paper — had acquired the symbolic significance of coitus. I fill cards and sheets with swirls of purple ink and volleys of typescript, perfect copies of my grandfather’s archaic mid-century words and riffs on his style. These cards and sheets, of course, barring a breeze of wind coming in through the window or slippage caused by the daily movements of the people in the flat, stay separate (as best they can) from my grandfather’s actual notes.

 

Our stores ran out, it was too overcast for parachute drops, so we ate nothing but boiled greens on Mount Ida for weeks in the cave we were using as a temporary HQ. We had to leave when there were reports of a German incursion into the hills, slipping down by night to evade encircling scouts and patrols. There were a number of them, walking about in mist-coloured greatcoats. At one point Aris, some distance ahead, ran back up the mountain to the rest of us: a patrol was sweeping upwards. Their figures came out of the mist. We ducked and hid, pressed together in the slim overhang of a cliff as they tramped above, dislodging stones that scattered about us. They were so close we heard their webbing tinkle like goatbells on their guns. We sat silent, trembling, without breath, on a carpet of flint shards, bones, and dried leaves, pistols and submachine-guns cocked, ready to blast our way out: May we die without shame! They swept past unseeing. We were sure we had been betrayed, and swore to find the traitor. Then we tripped down hills of thyme, rockrose, heather, myrtle, arbutus, and verbena to a village we knew was safe, fierce, and loyal. This was the way of things. 

Crete, ’44.

 

Helena came in. Henry, shocked, stopped clipping his toenails, and began to finger the short stubble on his chin. 

 

‘I want to swim,’ Helena said. ‘It is hot.’ 

 

The Hilton’s pool sparkled with bodies on fire in the preternatural summerday inferno, becoming more-than-human in the unusual heat: then feel the sudden overwhelming liberating cold splash of jumping into the cool-water pool.

 

‘Would you smuggle me in some wine please, darling?’ Helena asked. I submitted to her flirty pleading and brought a giant Americana fast food sippy cup filled with sharp neat cheap wine. The sun-warmed gravel of the road stung the damp soles of my feet.

 

There was a small tussle of wills at the lido once the wine was gone and the sun low. Helena and Henry reheated some old argument. Then they were gone into the powerfully hot maw of the metro station laughing in tyrannical love. ‘It really does look like we have to destroy other things and people in order to avoid destroying ourselves,’ Helena murmured. Then, more vindictively: ‘Did you notice it when they arrived, that they smelt faintly and disgustingly of sex?’ I paused in the hot street glowering and reminisced of the feeling of a devil-hot tongue pressed against a resistance: an earlobe, thigh, cloth, lace. On the bus, deflatingly, I said: ‘In German “to pull one out” is a very common vulgar term for masturbation. I have no idea whether a Frenchman would recognise an allusion to masturbation in the words casser une branche d’un arbre or in some suitably emended phrase. What do you think?’

 

‘Of course she would,’ Helena said.  

 

The day sank and with it its ethics. We dressed and went out. The resultant hangover twinned with a comedown pushed my work back a number of days. 

 

We left the mountain range, heading towards the north coast and its cobalt sea. In a village along the way we bought a goat with a few gold sovereigns. We rose again before we descended to the coast, and in a small cave set in a stepped cliff we sat about eating the rest of the goat stew with hard mealy bread. Aris was festooned with bandoliers slathered in meatslick. Our Cretan outfits were augmented with a white hooded cloak of home-spun goats’ hair, kindly gifted by Aris’s mother. It was colder. Here was a sort of magical forest with glowing dark shadows and the sparkle of snow-and-ice diamonds. Snow glittered everywhere on the peaks, white like breasts. By landscape I am reminded of my mother’s figure, the mountain heights bigger and bigger. With the finest of mapping pens I fondly trace all the family names on the familiar places.

    ‘When do we get to attack and rout these cuckolds?’ Aris asked me, referring to the Germans with a typical Cretan slur for invaders and cads.

    ‘When we are ready, Aris.’

    ‘I am ready now as the eagle sits upon a high mountain.’

    I had seen Aris hit a man with a four hundred yard shot with a silver-studded Mannlicher rifle, one of the finest shots I saw all war, in any theatre.

    We spent a few days in Heraklion, keeping indoors during the daytime hours, venturing out at dusk. I was well disguised, darkening my moustache with burnt cork, you had more beard when I last saw you the knife slips in groan and drop, wearing my shepherd’s clothes and cloak, adopting a gruff mountain accent. Here we resupplied, met with some key agents, and benefitted from the black market. I felt eerie and icky when passing the Gestapo building. It possessed a certain spookiness.

    In the mountains, we were called to a tribunal of chosen pallikaria who were forming a law court. The crimes of two Gestapo collaborators were listed: treason, assisting the enemy, putting Cretan lives at risk, distributing subversive leaflets, and performing actions that lead directly to the deaths of pallikaria. I was selected to sit on the tribunal, where I listened to witnesses, arguments and counterarguments, meting out judgement, noise, and silence. The two men were found guilty of bearing upon their brows the vile garland of treason and were taken deep into the cave system and shot with  newly arrived long-barrelled Smith & Wesson .32 revolvers, and their bodies thrown into the dark. Andreas was very pale. He did not like the murder of Cretans. There was another Gestapo collaborator in the area we didn’t get. I heard after the war a good patriot went up to him and stabbed him in the gut with his dagger in the middle of the village and everyone agreed it was a good thing well done.

Crete, ’44.

 

‘What ever is the matter, darling?’ 

 

‘Oh you know, the usual.’ 

 

We are looking at another day’s picture of a communal pool. A morning spent in a distilled phial of perfect water; bathers suspended in liquidities. The swimming pool crystalline in its cartoony perfection; unpolluted azure between each glistering unclear individual inhabiting their lane in the limpid water. Seen collectivist noise. A woman glares at playful Henry through Dior sunglasses. He dives to the bottom of the deep end in shadow into murky inky ice age waters, then surfaces like a young seal, his hair sheeny and water-slick pomaded.

 

When we get home the sun still mad outside. Katy’s paint working like flesh, flesh working like paint. A poet’s books piled up on the desk, slim colourful Fabers. A ragged mini stack of gilt volumes dogeared from reading making a tiny sunlit version of the impressive King’s Library Tower at the British Library.

 

Henry rubs Katy’s thigh gently as he reads, thinking no one sees, making their activity erotic. She says something about natural reproduction and mechanical reproduction that reminds me of a reclining nude. 

 

We spent a night close to the village. Roasted goat, aniseed alcohol, and furtive talk with the elders, still reeling from the mini-holocaust of the village executions back in ’41. Of course to them it was a rape of huge proportions. You could feel the trauma in the survivors. Happier to tell about the way they took a threshing scythe or axe or blunderbuss to the throat or toned hairless chest of an invading para seeing his blood Nazi-red spill into the hard ground between the trees of an olive grove and knowing you have defended something worth defending. A kind of violence old as the olive press. The elders promised us ten men for the Operation. Ten men who had fought before. I divined in the way my serving of goat flesh fell away from the bone that showed white as sepulchre marble that the Operation would go well.

    In the clear morning we went to a cache and got Aris a brand-new smuggled-in Lee-Enfield. The greasepaper fell away from the wood of the weapon beautifully, twisted and contorted in the wind, one quick unsheathing motion showing off the weapon real dramatically in the white sunlight, the greasepaper held in Aris’s hand at the butt of the rifle flapping like a noble cloak. He gripped the rifle like a throat.

    I like the weaving of Cretan warfare, all the ambushes, its warp and weft. It feels like revolution: pure and good, permanent until it has to end.

    The gun-grease on your hands collected Minoan soil as you threw yourself behind a rock to avoid the dive-bombers. That felt good too.

    RETURN FIRE STELIOS (Στέλιος) RETURN FIRE

My dream was to fight in the ruins of Knossos. Shoot a man there in battle with pistols in a duel or sword to sword with a sabre to the gut spill forth blood at Grecian sword tread upon his neck and then to stick him up on a sharpened pole, like a shrike would with a lizard on a thorn, right in the middle of this palace complex which would then be demarcated as mine and mine alone by ancient rite and I would be demobbed and rule with golden archaic splendour.

Crete, ’44. 

 

It was afternoon and Dora was being sick: aDORAble. The grain coming back out of her. She was kind of cute with it, wiping the string of pukey spit from her mouth with grace and without disgust, elegantly grotty. It was all natural as hemlock after all. Just basic fluids and booze. Emissions, like stuff from cars. Looking down at the pretzel eaters and coffee-swillers in the plateia below, the feeling gathers and spills. 

 

‘This is making me poorly,’ Helena said. 

 

‘You’ve just ingested a lot of pool water and mezcal today my dear,’ Katy said. 

 

We travelled the goat paths. Aris caught a Balkan whip snake. It shimmered, long in his hand, then all coils of gold undulating scale and muscle. He dropped it and it slithered back into the umbrageous dark undergrowth of the shrubs. Aris liked to snap the bolt of his scavenged Karabiner 98k (7.92×57mm Mauser). He carved shallow scores into the wood with his knife for grip. Kept it well oiled. Wrapped it in autumn-toned earthy cloth, dyed sheep’s wool. It was a distinctive weapon, and its crackle bounced off the sides of gorges and its rounds slit thin metal.

    He retrained with the fresh Lee-Enfield. ‘Give it a rest with that bolt Aris.’ 

    CLUNK

    Aris ran twenty miles that night to deliver messages. 

Crete, ’44.

 

‘They found the Kar98 in the hands of the Iraqi insurgency,’ Helena said, ‘before they upgraded to pilfered American arms. Thousands of German weapons lain dormant for decades, or in the hands of shepherds—part of the USSR’s mass distribution of captured materiel.’ 

 

‘A great recycling machine,’ Henry said. 

 

With all that we managed to bring back, smuggled in cargo ships and soldiers’ luggage, sold at Sotheby’s and Christie’s with forged documents of authenticity, as well as privately, the ultra-special Egyptian item to the American, and with the rest of the boys dead at Normandy or in Germany, I became rich. 

England, ’46.

 

Katy paints while I write, and Henry translates in the room next door. It is a creative little commune. Katy’s painting seems to take on textures from my war stories. The painting has earthy tones. Brown orb of sun. Bright multicoloured splotch might interrupt the ascent of mountains. Hedges and copses of deciduous trees crisscrossing fertile valleys, grass like baize filling triangles cut across layered hills with khaki and chocolate and charcoal stripes of hedgerow. White shapes huddle under abstracted trees. It is progressing at the same steady yet erratic rate as my Histories. She seemed to have some kind of epiphany in the process of painting which allowed her, after the long restrained affect, to break loose and to flow away freely, as a stream of water diverted from a river is allowed to flow away when its work is done. 

 

We find the wild goats, the agrímia, everywhere. They hop from crevice to crevice as we do, browse in the scrub as we huddle there, out of sight; they follow our tracks, much better stalkers than the Germans, who step on mines and trip our tripwires, get hopelessly lost, until Aris, great archer, hits one with the ease of a veteran hunter (Jäger), and they scatter fast like a pool of marbles clinked by one of their number rolling hard and quickly towards the collective.

    I fall running from a patrol. I feel the bullets whizz overhead—like in a cartoon: pencil lines in the air—and jump across a largish gap forming a slight chasm not quite making it and slip into the gloom where a big cactus breaks my fall, and in return for the Virgin saving my life was a hand penetrated by spines.

    Sagging camouflage draped over a crippled cavern entrance. The radio spurts out enigmas against the wet walls: not for our cell. Kit inspection. Listen: a click clack of bronze bullet casings sliding smoothly into the magazine, its well-oiled spring tick tick ticking down, counting up death.

    Dribbles of scree down slopes gashed with landslides the colour of Mediterranean scrub. Palm trees on the subtropical south coast, where our boats come in from Africa. Seven Ju 87s like ugly, bloated geese in the sky with oversized fairytale eggs. Puff and pain in a knuckle. Dactyls, anapaests, cries and laments at night beside the campfire. 

    Ω ! Ω ! Ω ! Ω ! Ω ! 

Crete, ’44.

 

I bring concealed material to light. Maps: red lines like opened veins. 

 

Henry was working on a long translation, something from many eras, something to do with the reception of Orpheus. He read out Wordsworth’s exhortation to idleness, and we all closed our books and laptops, stopped working, and lazed about. 

 

Helena cradled her bloated stomach. 

 

‘Gluten,’ she groaned, ‘Greek bread, oil.’

 

But I thought it was psychosomatic. 

 

Mk. CXXIII Grenades. Aris Bombardier. He lets them loose to fragment FRAG in the middle of a battalion. Surefire chaos; it’s Pandoran. The noise and shrapnel bounce around the empty gorge as the imaginary battalion flee and the wounded groan and the dead leak. I crawl to the back of the armoured car on my crocodile belly. The door is loose, and the armour soft there: lots of room for manoeuvre. We have them pincered, and like a lobster with thick claw we close the surround and they, like a caught fish, wriggle feebly. My grenade goes into the back, knocking against feet and spent bullet casings. I sprint away to take cover behind a big rock and the mounted MG 42 —

Maschinengewehr 42

Elektrisches MG

Spandau

7.92×57mm Mauser,

with its noise like:

ripping cloth,

sewing machines,

buzzsaws

purring hellcat 

—which had caused us so much fright, enflaming and ruling the countryside like lordly dragon or wyrm, went up with its young men and the tank in a shout then cloudburst. Light flexes, instinctively. Smithereens are disseminated: a commanding officer’s cap lands lightly in the leaves of a plane tree on fire. Motes, shards, gristle, percussion fills air. One ammunition-bearer caught in the blast running between positions lies spreadeagled across the front of my rock, chipped like a table. In the tensioned silence afterwards you couldn’t find a rag of them. Burning armoured car dustily damascenes in the heat. 

Crete, ’44.

 

‘Repetition, incompleteness, rupture and mess over neatness, uniqueness and transcendence…’ I said to Helena and Henry. 

 

‘Does he stay silent on violence, your grandfather?’ Helena asked, raising a scythe-sharp eyebrow. ‘A lot of veterans seem to swerve it, that central element. Not that I blame them. Who wouldn’t want to forget the sticky stuff.’ 

 

‘He’s pretty voluble on it,’ Henry said, smiling, shuffling my sheets on the table. I made a weak attempt to stop him, to tell him that there is loose order to the pages he is messing with, but I didn’t manage to say anything, I didn’t want the bother.

 

Helena’s fingers smelt of galangal soap. 

 

‘I got it for my health,’ she said, comic-weakly.  

 

Another bar of the soap is wrapped in brown paper packaging left on the faience tabletop. Helena turned her morningly coarse eyes on me, and blinked twice deeply. She placed her iced coffee on the tiles near the claw-footed sideboard.

 

I continued where I left off: ‘…We must thus be suspicious of both repetitive memory and the completely other of the absolutely new…’

 

Falcon-headed Qebhsenuef guards the intestines, human-headed Imsety the liver, baboon-headed Hapy the lungs, jackal-headed Duamutef the stomach.

    We will make a pretty penny, a cool ten, twenty thou., perhaps. I can think of buyers, smugglers too who will get them onto the ships taking the burned and shot and blown up chaps back home. Grave goods smuggled in coffins, trucks, decommissioned tanks, imperial packages, diplomatic letters. 

26th Dynasty 

664–525BC

bronze 

Ptolemaic period

Amulets

gold

716–332BC

New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, Amenhotep III, steatite 

GILDED MUMMY MASK

cartonnage (linen and gesso), tempura on wood, Egyptian faience

Ptolemaic-Roman period

Statue of Akhenaten

Scarab

bezel

Stela with cartouche

Three hortatory stelae

Mummy with missing arm

Egyptian reliefs, scribbled over with the most beautiful birds’ heads, little seated men, and other hieroglyphs

people with the beaks of birds, falcons’ heads 

Forgery 

Forgery 

Forgery 

Electrum statuette 

30th Dynasty 

Mummiform figure

Silver coins

Archaic period 

Greek origin 

Fusion piece 

Twelve Scarabs

Little Cretan snake goddess statuette

The delightfully cheeky expression on a Ushabti of Imhotep

    I sob when I think of all that has been obliterated; a dreamlike world into sand, and there is enough sand here already. Worth nothing now and no cash / kickage $$$ value whatsoever.

    I ship to Crete tonight. Glad to be off. Thank god I studied Classics; Greek. Middle East Special Operations and Escapes; SOE; Force 133 Intelligence Corps. We will see what the Minoans left for me

North Africa, ’43.

 

‘There is always a recalling, a re-presenting again, anaphora, anamnesis,’ I burble, ‘gesturing towards something immanent in human behaviour.’ 

 

At a bar with Henry and Katy I rest my head on the rough cotton of the arms of my blazer and belch warmly into the space below and see a balloon of air and gas expand then disappear. On the table is a bottle of liqueur with the word ‘Ananas’ printed boldly on the label and a pseudo-antique bowl on which there are eyes painted, what is known as ‘occhiale’, to avert the evil eye 

 

‘I am the old way of doing things,’ I say with vigour into the space.

 

At home I flick and fidget through the internet. Soldiers move to the border. Mountain passes close. Air raids on Ur. Wæl-stow: killing field. Photograph of a scene: robed monks drinking in cantinas; background: a row of cypresses, and then olive trees, more monks, the olive trees forming a painterly fur of landscape under the heat which burns off the mist. Ah, Italy. I stare ensorcelled into the blue glare, recalling. Henry lights a pencil-thin cigar at the window, puffing and chewing. ‘Smoking and oversmoking is one of the greatest and cheapest enjoyments in my life,’ he has said to me. 

 

Below, the local plateia spreads out towards foothills and you can still see stars at night. Some stones in the plateia are war-scarred, or show their mortar and concrete bandages: saxa loquuntur! (stones talk!)

 

I know as much as one man can know about both the ancient and the new, I think, without conviction.

 

I have morning routines. I buy fish off the boat. Drink a coffee in the SSW corner of the plateia. Browse the vegetable market. Hear sparrows click and whirr on wires. Feel the rustle of airborne feathers. 

 

Aris gave me the impression that something had gone wrong in his life tho’ no inkling of what. He was totally disinterested in anything at all but the fighting. ‘We didn't want the swastika, the symbol of fascism, to infect the island. We went to the mountains… The Greek revolution had to come out of the marrow of the bones of the living Greeks…

Crete, ’44.

 

Helena circled around a story for a while, changing bits, filling it out, then, after a long indecision, fell back on what she first said.

 

I wake imagining a vulture is patting at my lips with its tail. It feels very real, the feathers brushing against my mouth. My finger pumps at the trigger 1 2 3 4 5 6 of my Enfield No. 2 Mk1. The 0.38s arc into the sky, hitting nothing. The sound crackles around stone gullies, holes in the mountain. Nothing flies off. Aris and Andreas jump up. Aris shouts. We have to move now, quickly, THEY WILL HAVE HEARD. Andreas, indolent layabout, drags his feet. 

Crete, ’44.

 

‘The unconscious is timeless; not temporally ordered,’ I say to Henry, ‘that is why the order does not matter…’

 

Harry, another SOE chap out here, looks magnificent in his authentically tall black boots, baggy navy breeches, black shirt with twisted mulberry silk sash, cocked dagger in silver scabbard, blue-embroidered waistcoat, wildly fringed black turban, rifle slung across chest and shoulders; the very spit of Aris, a real Cretan. The village-sweeping, roadblocking Germans are the true determiners of authenticity, and Harry has passed so far. 

Parachute drop list: 

Beautifully coloured maps 

Rifles

Commando daggers  

Silencers for pistols 

Chloroform 

Gold sovereigns 

False papers

Gelignite 

Morphine

Flour  

    The parachutes float off with the wind and land in the trees like giant moths, radioactive in the chrome moon coming through blank sky. A barrel containing a sheaf of rifles hits a rock, bounces, breaks, and the rifles tumble down the hillside. Aris collects them and comes back stacked like an armoury. Cor, the patrol moves so close to us I could reach out and stick my stiletto into his shin. Bodily they burst into view in the gully. I the adder in the little bush. Tangles of hawthorn. I am radiantly happy. There with a big grin on my face, thinking of the loose tealeaves and sugar mingled in a pouch in my bergen and how sweet and dark it would be to gut this whole patrol and we could have a merry little coitus a tergo with them once they pass and are pinned from the rear by our machine guns. There must be thirty guerrillas here holding breath in the bush: Merry Band of Klefts. At my nose are Cretan orchids, cyclamen, sage, rubbing earthy bien pensant gamey scents into my nose. Their petals and prickles are dappled, moon-bright, starlit, but my face is smeared with echoless opaque dirt and clay. A shiver of stones on the hillside. The nervy Germans stick their guns towards it but they see nothing.

Crete, ’44.

 

The mirror in Henry’s apartment was empty and full of inert stuff: a plant, a lamp, whitely yellow eco-light. Henry stares into it. Intolerably handsome: it dips in all the right places when he twirls his face to get the right shades. He pulled on a scarlet and white sweater, posh in his pride, then mussed his hair with finishing wax. He planted his lips in the air and plumped a couple of mulberry kisses at the reflection, and, calling goodbye, left the flat. Although things were going on outside I stayed with my typewriter and cards and pens and ink and notes and do not engage without outside world because I do not need to because I have the outside right in here with me.

 

Before we proceed any further, let me speak: I did want revenge for what I saw, yes. When the earth at the front moved like a geyser, 88s, mushroomed up, War of the Worlds, and spat the squad high into the air the texture of strawberry milkshakes I did want vengeance, yes, and it did not abate. So when I parachuted onto the sierras of Festung Kreta [Fortress Crete] it was quite a relief to be able to do what I liked in the welcoming chaos, and be out of the bomb alleys of Africa. I sliced one of them up good for that for killing my boys I showed him what I was all about in deeds and that was the end of it.

    I saw, felt, and was part of it.

    The drum beats deep in the heart.

    Trumpets in the silence.

    War is to eat me up.

Crete, ’44.

 

And because I fall short of what I say I’m all about Jay-Z says on 4:44 with mournful charisma through the unmelliflous computer speakers.

 

‘What even is a proper historian?’ I ask them. 

 

‘Not you,’ Helena says, teasingly. 

 

‘Someone with a professorship,’ Henry says. 

 

The elders sat in attendance in the shade of the cypress grove. They smoked the dark pipe tobacco we brought them, or chopped up dry leaves on the wood of their rifles to roll into cigarettes. The village was quiet, airy, shadowed. We described the Operation: Towards dawn team THESEUS would creep towards the perimeter of base MINOTAUR, on the side of the petrol dump, cut the telephone wire there, silently eliminate the guards, and lay charges on the petrol and gas silos. Team ARIADNE would move into the aerodrome, taking the worn goat path through the minefield, cut the wire fence, assemble inside undetected, and bomb as many aircraft as possible, sabotage their fastest vehicles, shoot at the harrowed, sleepy garrison, then retreat under air-cover to the great gorge in the badlands, where the trap for the tanks and search parties would be laid. 

    We would leave British Players cigarettes, berets, and papers strewn across the battleground smothered with the wreckage of war well won, and dress all the resistance fighters in British uniforms, to trick the Germans into thinking it was a solely British operation, to limit reprisals.

    The monstrous members of my brigand band, Anthropoi tou Skotous (men of darkness), blood soaked all, sat around, or squatted with their guns across their knees smoking sweet-smelling aromatic cigarettes, taking long pulls from a gourd of wine, nodding solemnly, desperate for action. Aris, his brow bound with a garland of Kermes oak I had bestowed on him for bravery (great sniper of the plateaus), gravely entreated the elders with his pitch-dark pupils to give their blessing to the operation.  

    The Kapetanios of the local pallikaria then spoke, explaining the efficacy of the Operation—that it would boost morale, make the Greeks rise up, cause general insurrection, hasten the fall of Crete in chains towards a free sovereign Crete. The elders talk and pass judgement. The Kapetanios stands and moves to the assembled guerrillas: Let us pour war into the bowels of these ungrateful cuckolds he shouts and his giant Nietzschean moustaches wriggle. 

    Let me have war they reply. 

    Make an end for their posterity

    We radioed Cairo to confirm air support.

    May the Blessed Virgin scour the rust from our guns.

    Hear the clatter of everyone filling their magazines.

    The evening was filled with drink and song: Cretans have the Celtic ear for the music of words.

Crete, ’44.

 

‘You’ve really gone off on one here, give it a break, come out for dinner.’ 

 

‘You can check the notes, man. And I’m staying: I’m serious about this stuff.’

 

Henry drank an anìs. The smoke from freighters outward bound from the Piraeus hung low across the horizon. 

 

The Operation went off very well; we all knew what we had to do; we go toward them with no less confidence than boys pursuing summer butterflies, or butchers killing flies:

    All objectives accomplished. No casualties spotted among the Cretans. By the time teams THESEUS and ARIADNE met up and made it back to the gorge great brushes of black and grey and red smoke were painting the lofty sky which seemed to stretch up into the infinite with its Olympian pillars of fiery smoke. The MINOTAUR was in flames. We do it like Hell. You’re living in our Crete now. In the middle of the fun I noticed Andreas was no longer with us, but was reassured by the fact that he had always been slower thanks to the Spandau bullet lodged in his left thigh.

    Andreas never returned. Our air support made themselves feel useful by further peppering the aerodrome. A number of German trucks were burned out with tracer bullets shot from the air. Ignited canvas snapped and flailed in the fanning wind. No enemy planes took flight, just more and more pillars of smoke into the sky like columns on a temple: 

 

 I I I I I I I I

 

    We packed away our guns at the gorge while groups dispersed and returned to the caves. We celebrated with cups of hot wine and rakómelo and renditions of the Erotokritos and our kefi was great. 

Crete, ’44.

 

‘Men love war because it allows them to look serious,’ Helena said.

 

The next day they began their hunt, like jackals made hungry with fire. We were up on a high ridge doing reconnaissance when we saw a group of andártes making a risky attempt to cross a wide-open ochre gorge with a dirt road running along its length. They scurried down the side where there was a cleft, and, being careful of German snipers and spotters, sprinted across the road in ones and twos. We saw him go down before we heard the report of the sniper’s rifle. He fell in the middle of the road. Then the fighting began, the jeeps and armoured cars came, and several more of ours went down. We took up firing positions on the ridge to provide cover, but were forced back by sustained mortar and heavy machine gun fire that split the air with noise. There were so many of them. We retreated into the woods above and watched, out of range, with binoculars. When the battle was over and most of our Cretan lads lay dead the local SS-Obersturmbannführer with a crooked face traversed the crater-pocked road, and went up to first-hit wounded man, who had crawled behind a rock leaving a red ribbon in the dust. Beside the SS officer approached Andreas—I was sure it was him—in German fatigues. They spoke, and the Andreas-lookalike nodded. Some of the soldiers tied the still-alive body of the wounded man to the back of a jeep with a rope lashed around his heels. They dragged him to their base along the rough road in the gorge, conjuring an ugly dust cloud with the juddering, rock-flayed body. There was nothing we could have done being so outgunned and ambushed. The other dead were transformed by point-blank bursts of machine guns. They approached our position from the gorge and spat at the forest floor with their metal. I was riveted and could feel my heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest. I felt the ebbing libido of the bullets. It was like this: I was numb apart from that sensation. 

Crete, ’44.

 

Helena’s lip bent downwards and she looked at me with bloodshot eyes when her coffee was placed down.

 

‘I am annoyed. You are boring me. Life is so difficult!’ 

 

Henry dropped his cigar-end into his coffee.

 

‘Why do you always seem persecuted by some inexorable fate, like Furies?’ She asked him.

 

She wore a punky choker, outfit of earthy tones interrupted by a bright scarf. Henry’s suit is well-fitting but dated. His shirt is open at the chest and a V of browned skin shows.

 

‘I am missing the rhythm of our old and normal lives. Structures outside the home,’ she said.

 

‘Well, we’re in a cafe now.’

 

‘Yeah but we’re in this cafe because this cafe is in books and is famous. Look: Henry even dressed up for it. We’re here because other people have been here and it’s a thing. We’re not just here. I don’t aim to be somewhere because it is a place, an event; I am just here, there, wherever. That kind of rhythm is natural. You don’t have rhythm, you just follow books. Which is unnatural.’ 

 

Henry studiedly sips his cappuccino. 

 

‘Doing things because others have done them is crucial. Others have done this, I don’t see why that stops us doing it,’ he says. 

 

Helena picks at the warty trunk of a tree. ‘Still, it feels so off to me. We never just do things.’ 

 

‘We have to contend with the deluge of tradition.’ 

 

Her face was like a half-effaced and unreadable inscription.

 

‘You’re spending your time building castles in the air,’ she said.

 

As Allied Forces bullied Germany into an ever-shrinking portion of Europe, the stranded garrison on Crete retreated to a fortified section of Chania with all their artillery. We established our SOE HQ in Vaphe, above. The Germans made a rare excursion out with seven tanks and four hundred infantry one winter morning, catching us by surprise. I had barely woken when the first shell hit the village. We fired back and took positions in the mountain above. The citizens of Vaphe are primarily occupied with olive tree cultivation and pastoral farming, so we took cover behind Athena’s gnarled silver trunks and the low stone walls of husbandry pens. We had a lot of top-notch guns and arms now, shipments were often arriving, and the surrendering Italians had provided a number, so we put up an effective resistance and rehearsed retreat. When the Italians surrendered to the Allied Forces, the Germans blew up their casks of red wine causing the streets to look like rivers of blood as it ran down them, a boozy Tiber in Greece. One of our mortar shells landed on the roof of an armoured car. The Germans, their brains singed, stepped out and wandered about like automatons. We picked them off like we would empty beer bottles. Thanks to the Cretan wireless—the mouths of men—contingents of guerrillas and armed villagers came from all the surrounding townships and hills, forming a grand battalion on the ridges, where there was a continuous ripple of small arms fire as me, Aris, and a few choice others went round the side of the village to try to get some grenades into the tanks. And then I saw him: Andreas, crouching meekly behind a house with the SS-Obersturmbannführer and a retinue. I could see the eagle-stamped buttons on his uniform glint, a twist of rotten mulberry silk—the last vestiges of his Cretanness—tied around his waist, and, embroidered on the arm in gold and cream, black and grey:

 

 KRETA

AFRIKAKORPS 

 

Aris raises his rifle and fires. The SS commander goes down in a spray of rose quartz, his face set like Ajax, grim underneath his tan as Rommel after ’Alamein. Andreas looks up, his retinue fire upon us. Aris, with strange calm, natural rhythm, dismantles them. A flurry of mortar shells land nearby. A flaming tank rolls into the street. The house Andreas is taking cover behind collapses. Air everywhere is full of smoke and straw and fire and vapour. Tall plane trees burst and become shrapnel. There is grain spread across the road, and I think of the importance of grain and storehouses in ancient war, in War and Peace. Painlessly my boot fills with blood. Andreas, covered in dust and dirt, stands with pistol pointed, but he has only hit the fleshy part of my thigh. He bays at me with a bear’s fury before the charge, huge claw of a commando knife raised, the knife I had gifted him. Then shouts:

 

For you, the city, thus I turn my back: There is a world elsewhere. 

 

We thought you were dikos mas (ours) Andreas! 

 

His turban is sweaty and badly bound, as if he had forgotten how to tie it. His eyes are hotly bright, otherly, full of rage and grief. He had been such a pleasure-loving man earlier in the occupation: Il sole non si move we had thought. But now betrayal oozes out of him at every pore. He was unduly intense. Dental sounds came from his mouth:

 

This is not a wise rebellion. 

 

You’ve got the fear Andreas, calm down. 

 

My Gestapo file will remain forever closed. After this I move to Germany. No recriminations. 

 

There is little need for this. 

 

You can be comforted by the idea that death has its own intrinsic logic, Captain, and that if there is a God you will meet him and the Holy Virgin soon.

 

Leave it out, Andreas. I hated him then, having brought up our rakomelo-soaked conversations in caves, using the arsenal of the past to arm himself with words as I lay bleeding out on the ground. He was stood above, slightly and guiltily away, holding his knife and pistol, his moist eyes moving from the valleys of Crete spread below then to the iced-white arête of the mountaintop.

 

And now I will cut until I feel the solid ground beneath, he said and he was above me suddenly with a berserker furor.

 

Frigging hell. 

 

His head opens like a rose. A limping Aris with luminous eyes brings me to my feet with joy and esprit de corps. The attack had been repulsed.

I apologise, Aris said, one cannot destroy an enemy if he is absent or out of range, and I did not mean to let him get so close to you, but I did need to use his base rage against you, the way that neurotic acts of revenge tend to be directed at the wrong people, so do not feel bad about it, but I am sorry you are shot. 

I asked him what gun he had used. His own rifle had jammed, so it was my Sten he had hit him with, a long burst of 9×19mm Parabellum (PREPARE FOR WAR) glided right through his head, pink mist painting the air a gorgeous, blossomy springtime hue. Voilà

une belle mort.

Crete, ’44.

 

‘There’s just no way Aris could have said that,’ Henry says, ‘in those words, verbatim.’ 

 

‘Perhaps not, but it is what he wanted to say, would have said if he could.’

 

‘That’s dangerous territory, man.’ 

 

I spent a little time recuperating in dazzling springtime at the Villa Ariadne before my wound reopened and began to fester and I shipped back to Cairo. In the affluent suburb of Heliopolis, where the SEO kept its base and hospital, I met a number of other injured men. Some were in twilight states, wandering around half in and half out of dreams. Many had traumatic neuroses. My doctor, a man with an impressively full, rounded grey beard and a tall, shiny bald head, told me that those who suffer physical injury seem less likely to develop neurosis, compared to those who experienced only the fright of war, for instance: the noise and the machinery. You have been injured, metal has passed through you, and this is symbolically significant to the mind, so you are likely to make a full mental and physical recovery. You can see a thousand throats cut yet if you are shot in the process it is likely you will not become a blabbering neurotic. 

    I wanted to get back out there; I was missing the war, which suited me; I needed to get to Crete, tread the goat paths in liquid moonlight; see tanks burning and petrol fires turning sand into glass, bullets spread across the earth. I wanted to just go back in time, so I spent most of the period of convalescence in Egypt lying on my hospital cot with my eyes closed and arms folded over my chest, deep in memory, reliving and recreating my wartime experience down to the tiniest detail: pausing, rewinding, zooming in and out, playing with slow-motion, panning, seeing all. I am not sure that this gave me pleasure, instead it was a mixture of pain and pleasure, each informing and propelling the other. I had long dreams during my infection, filled with lists and oracles and the past. Conversation with the doctor provided some stimulation: 

    In the summer of 1943, having an extraordinary quantity of medical notes to copy, patients to treat, and drugs to purchase, I engaged an extra clerk, who interested me considerably, in consequence of his modest, quiet, noble, gentlemanly demeanour, his nervous tics, and his intense, almost infernal, application to his duties. He was the most pronounced neurotic I had met. Whenever he was at work, so assiduously copying, with the utmost diligence, reams of patient notes, attending to bandages and dressings, administering morphine, or assuaging the sick, he complained he was haunted by olfactory hallucinations, inorganic, indefinably inhuman smells: toasting bread, burning body hair, a decaying cigar end, the scent of burnt pudding, all the while being surrounded by the worst smells of a busy war hospital (which I do not need to elaborate to you). I subjected him to analysis, of course, surreptitiously, perhaps unethically, but he was not very suggestible, his head buried in his notes, endless streams of black ink, which seemed to give him temporary sanctuary from the smell of burnt pudding, but when, out of fatigue or distraction, he lifted his head from the paper, he would sniff at the air, scrunch his delicate nose, raise a perfumed handkerchief, and, frowning, return to his work. He left me eventually. I heard he had signed up, and was killed in Italy within a month while storming a fortified castle. When he was still alive and in action he was said to discharge his weapon at the strangest of times, right beneath his nose, the burning cordite providing some small relief from his olfactory hallucinations I imagine, insofar as I interpreted his symptoms. It was extreme of him to use death as a way of curing his neuroses. 

    The next morning the doctor returned, and after checking my wound said, See that man over there, his breath lurid with cigar smoke, he is home to a rare bacteria which would have killed him. But how can we countenance killing it: well, by killing it, we save several trillion more bacteria which make up what he calls his “self” or “body”. I have kept some of this special animal and I am growing it in a laboratory, for tests, so it is not wholly dead, just without living host for now, and who knows where else its progeny may exist. And this man here, he said, gesturing across the ward, had a horrendous stomach upset, which, along with the antibiotics to cure him, have removed the bacteria that had made him their home and turned his body—which he assumed so much control over—into a universe of their own: and now his microbiology suffers from the invasion of the antibiotics, and so he suffers. He sighed with sad pleasure. This terrible war has given rise to a great many such disorders and war neuroses. This man, he pointed to a man with a bandaged chest, was not wounded in the war in a typical way, he instead fell in love with a woman in Italy, and when she rejected his love, he shot himself in the heart, missing anything vital. You see, he has suffered the profound loss of the love object and now has nothing but a great narcissistic scar bright as fluorescence, bright as his physical wound and its puffy, petunia-pink scar tissue. All he moans about all day every day, as I am sure you have heard, is how he cannot accomplish anything, that he can’t succeed in anything: symptoms of an overwhelming feeling of inferiority. This falsity seems to be primal, more elemental, more deeply instinctual than the tangibly embodied gunshot wound he has suffered (you see, he is in fact a highly decorated war hero). His soma is complicated, and I hold out little hope for him. He will likely return to Italy, find the woman, and shoot himself: the unconscious only wants to break into the conscious or release itself into action; hate, as I am sure you know, is an unexpectedly regular accompaniment to love.

    And this man, the one handcuffed to the bed, and this man, the one with his face in his pillow, he waves his arm, one shot a friend, another is so deeply depressed he cannot stand. How can I put it? We have only too often witnessed élite troops, who, having accomplished some valiant exploit, go on parading with their decorations and finally turn against the cause they once defended. Nothing like that need be feared from troops whose attack was waged to utter dissolution.

    Strange creatures, even, are billeted in my brain, he said, tapping the bald top of his skull. Cases, theories, diagnostics, formulas have quartered themselves there, constantly seeking out new sensations. They turn green, then blue, and cry out for cure and recovery.

    The last time I saw him he was sauntering down the ward. I noticed a book protruding from the pocket of his coat, and pointed to it.

    Some works of X! he cried, palming the book. You know it? Of course you do. My practice here and my continuing sanity has its roots in reading, performing, adapting, watching X. I always say to myself (and of course others) ‘return to X’, ‘as in X’, ‘think of X’s melodies’, ‘and wasn’t it was X who said’ [I cannot, alas, remember precisely what writer — ancient, medieval, modern, etc. — he was speaking of]. Going back to his work and its grit and substance gives me models for the world. One has to have a brutal and romantic and materialistic revival of X here to keep from going mad, I have found. He is more full of riddles than even Z [sadly I have forgotten Z’s real name, also]. Little riddles, that live as parasites, spreading the power of the unexplained through the body politic. His fingers rapped the chest of a tubercular patient. It is my trifold fate: medical doctor, amateur classicist, retired warrior. They fight within me. Only with X does it become plain, do I find cohesion, quieten all mania, and come back transformed.

Egypt, ’44.

 

‘Are you almost done with it?’ Helena asked. 

 

‘Yes.’ 

 

‘Good.’ 

 

‘Where would you like to go once it’s done?’ 

 

‘Just about anywhere. A beach, an island?’ 

 

‘Where’s Henry?’ 

 

‘Ioannina. He left this morning.’ 

 

‘He didn’t mention it to me.’ 

 

‘He did, sweetheart, often.’  

 

‘And Katy?’ 

 

‘She’s in Euboea.’

 

‘Ah.’ 

 

‘Make some tea would you? I miss its warmth and wholesomeness.’ 

 

‘We’re out.’

 

The shape of my thoughts hung in unsolved oscillation. 

 

‘Oh, Hell,’ Helena said. 

 

I would have been stuck in my endless cycle of bed-bound war-obsession followed by strange, lopsided talk with my enigmatic doctor if I was not abruptly discharged from the hospital, and sent to Palestine on a diplomatic mission, where I saw unending forests of oranges and lemons. I made a few contacts in the Middle Eastern antiquities trade, which were to prove lucrative. 

    On my return to Cairo from Palestine, I went to the hospital to see the doctor. He was not there, just men in various stages of somnolence, atrophy, and death. On my way out I bumped into a smart, plummy English officer.

    I’ve been looking for you, he Englishly drawled.   

    He took me across the district in his jeep. We pulled up at a shed on the edge of Heliopolis. 

    I’ve heard about your activities, wondered if you could help me with this?

    We walked into a dark, unoccupied room. He unveiled a large slab: an inscribed stele made of electrum. At the top, a giant solar disk of inlaid gold, and below the revolutionary pharaoh Akhenaten with his wife Nefertiti, polychrome in precious gems: features picked out in sapphire, lapis lazuli, emerald and obsidian; their features beautiful, distorted, elongated, pouty. Akhenaten wears a double crown and collar of massive gold beads, indicative of his solar divinity, Nefertiti a headdress adorned with hooded cobras. The rays of the sun, made of streams of gold inlaid into incised electrum, end in pincers holding the ankh to the pharaonic couple. The pincers wield scimitars and spears against the other figures in the image. Around the king and queen the old gods are strewn dead or dying. Thoth, Amun, ram-headed Khnum, falcon-headed Horus, knives stuck between divine ribs, heads decapitated, Osiris flightless, lame.

    We’ll be richer than Croesus, the officer said to me. 

    Who found it?

    Some locals, tomb-robbers. They died.

    That hung in the air. He twiddled the end of his moustache. 

    My rusty knowledge of hieroglyphics, and weeks spent pouring over my squeezes and rubbings of the cartouches and inscriptions on the tablet, told me that the they recounted a dream of Akhenaten’s, of him and his wife slaughtering the old gods with the one true God, the sun, Aten, in orgiastic glory of his ka. On the tablet Akhenaten recounts that the morning when he woke from this dream and saw the rising sun was the day he decided to do away with the old gods, and settle on the monotheism of the sun:

 

O Aten, you who initiate life 

And snuff it out,

Your flaming rays

Cage this silty land. 

 

O horizon-living Aten,

Although you are far away

You are perceived 

As pure light.

 

Aten, you are a solar-disk,

Pushing the dark away.

Put a spell upon my people 

And remove death: night. 

 

I see a snake covered 

In shining scales of flint

Pierced by the thrust 

Of your holy spear. 

 

Aten: a sole god,

Indivisible, except into

Three: the troika

Of I, you, and Nefertiti.

 

O you, Aten, 

Are oneness,

Split into a million rays,

Your awesomeness is great.

 

We strike down the old gods 

And erect you in their place. 

Their heads roll.

O rerek-snake, take yourself off. 

 

I open the Netherworld

To let your rays in. 

Together we cut out

The mortal hearts of our enemies. 

 

With thee, Lord of Brightness,

I shall fraternise with the stars. 

Your divine limbs enflame

A storm which takes us gods aloft.

 

Clouds open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me

when we join in

eternity, spirit, infinity. 

 

I remembered conversations with the archaeologist and Egyptologist John Pendlebury. The tablet was a radical and heretical image. If only he too could have seen it. But he was dead, shot as a spy by the Germans on Crete. 

    We called it the Electrum Dream Tablet. It was smuggled into England on a troop ship, ingeniously hidden in pallets of dismantled war machinery. It sold for a great sum to an American collector. The officer, Jeremy, was killed in a car crash in Heidelberg at the close of the war. He never collected his share. 

    One day, in an act of rebellion, the sons murder the father, replace him with the totem symbol… in the later products of religions, often in the strangest disguises and transformations.

Cairo—London, ’45.

 

Henry and Katy came home. ‘Euboea was infested with poisonous bugs.’ ‘Ioannina was cold.’ Back in dreamylove. They both have spots on their chins, red sleepless eyes heavily lidded which gingerly appraise the flat for damage. Cigarettes, gummed paintbrushes, specks of hash, clumps of rolling baccy, endless books, empty bottles, mix merrily across the tiles. Air gust: some notecards fall into a pool of liquid (bleach water wine), the ink pulled from the paper. Several are taken cavorting through a window. No one notices, no one cares.

 

Henry’s translations were accepted by an American university press, he tells us.

 

With projects winding down, we had time to watch a film, and put on Le Mepris

 

‘I want to go there,’ Helena said. 

 

‘I hate you,’ Katy said to Henry by the fridge, but we all heard.

 

The next night we watched Cocteau’s Orphée.

 

‘I despise you,’ Henry whispered to Katy, lovingly, noses and foreheads pressed together. 

 

Henry’s moccasins reek of the sea. Smell like trireme wood I imagine. Terrible. Squelchy there on the mat. He smells good: sandalwood, salt breeze. Katy of flowerdust, fresh coffee fumes. 

 

The bin in Henry’s kitchen is filled with rot, spent coffee grounds, gangrenous spatchcocked chicken carcass. We had had it the night before, getting grease and herbs on our fingers and our work. Experienced (as far as we could remember) the finality of downing two bottles of wine per person. 

 

‘Air, I need air,’ Helena said. ‘We are finally free.’

 

Walking from house to temple via café, Henry masculinely tosses the bin-bag onto a local slagheap.

 

I feel grim, shudder, the sun shines. Henry’s eyes are closed, but he covers them further with a pair of tortoiseshell sunglasses. 

 

Glorious Parthenon glitters gaily in the sharp snap of the breeze and the materiality of the light. White and blue flags stiff as herms. Helena took a photo of the cityscape, didn’t like it, deleted it. 

 

As of this moment for as long as I could remember I had wanted this. Things to end, other things to begin. 

 

I paid in the war, and so I paid myself. Judge me with your myopically narrow focus on small details, if you feel the desire. You will not believe me, but I am one of the great idealists of the world. Will you be upset if I tell you that there were more like the Electrum Dream Tablet?

    The silenced pistol shoots down the fat guido teamster boss in glorious black-and-white. I stare past the TV at the flowery wallpaper. I switch the set off and step out and walk out into London, enclave of freaks. They’re being made to cut their hair in Czechoslovakia.  Protesting the Vietnam War across campuses in the US. I note the bronze and apricot legs, raised fists, blood and beer on the sidewalks, new drugs,  thick eyeliner, the delight of cigarette smoke and sweet alcohol and weed and crushed flowers in the gutter. I felt full of something magnificent. Further, further: the grizzled lapping of the Thames below.

    My girlfriend tells me that I still shout out the names of my old mates, orders, and lists of mystery items out in my sleep. That I scream in murderous gunpowdery joy. That I shout out into the howling, mountainous, phosphorus-lit, snow-packed, nuclear night. 

    I am (a) modern man. 

London, ’66.

 

‘Don’t worry, darling, all the best things, people, and and fortunes in life are charlatan, darling,’ Helena says, brushing my shoulder. 

 

The blank glare of Henry’s sunglasses show darkly reflective. They are grease-smeared and scratched, interrupting any whole and complete reflection of the things suspended before them, which would be impossible anyway, the lenses being dark and dull, and their being scratched breaking up the possibility of any solid reflection.

 

He takes the sunglasses off, carefully wiping them on his shirt, and then he asks, not unkindly,

 

‘But don’t you feel grubby?’ 

For quotations I gratefully acknowledge: W. H. Auden, Anne Carson, Guy Debord, Sigmund Freud, David Jones, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Miriam Leonard, Christoper Logue, George Psychoundakis, Robin Robertson, William Shakespeare, and Leo Tolstoy.

Tom Willis is a graduate student. He lives in London. 

Image:

Gilded Mummy Mask 

4382, Freud Museum London

©2020 Pericles at Play. Homepage paintings by Annabel Dover