It is difficult, however, to conceive of a living being to whom or through whom something happens without an affection getting inscribed in a sensible, aesthetic manner right on some body or some organic matter.
I moved to Athens after the dig, for the autumn and winter. Athens, a hypertext. Athens, a stromata; patchwork.
My apartment was close to Henry’s, in the southwest of the city, just beyond the ancient walls. I filled the place with books to colonise strange furniture, claim strange rooms. They lay in drifts in corners, in flurries on shelves, bricked up against walls, piled in artful dolmens beside the bed. Yet I rarely read. It made me sick to think of reading or rereading or rerereading. When I did, I chose dull academic books with an agglutination of jargon, full of gnarled archaisms. Their thick foam of language didn’t threaten to disrupt the world, it was dead on arrival.
At dusk every evening a flock of birds moved from the branches of nearby trees with the sound of a thousand rustling bayonets.
Ceiling fans thumped out their rhythm all night every night.
The green lights of a bar turned the stone of the street as green as a goblin. When the day got late and dark I pulled the slats of the outer metal blinds shut. Otherwise the colour slipped into the room, making it eerie like a bad fantasy, alive with a network of viridescent shadows.
From a window I could see an ancient column. There was no inscription explaining its presence or origin. I wondered if it affected the people who lived and had lived nearby, if they were thinking of everyday Athens, or of the Athens of today, or of the Athens of always, haunted by the stratified ruin of all the Athenian memories we wanted to to take in view, keep always in shot.
Arranging a few books pantomimically on my desk to signal work-in-progress, incase anyone ended up visiting (my thesis was still unfinished, my funding running out, and I didn’t want anyone to think I was lazy, inattentive, unable to read), I left to meet Henry at a café.
Outside, silver cars moved above wet tarmac, their sleek backs glistening like dolphins cresting in the salt-grey sea.
He was wearing a dark suit, sitting under a sodden parasol, drinking beer, reading a slim red copy of the The Bacchae. We greeted each other with a close embrace. Almost immediately on sitting down, he told me that he had fallen sonnet-writingly in love with Katy, and filled me in on their romance.
[“His story broke my heart, and I sat down / upon the sands and wept. I did not want / to go on living or to see the sun.”]
I told him Georgie had broken my heart, changed me, but the huge waspnoise of a passing motorcycle erased my words. Her spectre vanished, and I lost the courage to summon her, to let her drink blood and talk. I decided it wasn’t very important to let people know that you’d been changed, and, instead of speaking, sipped my glass of cheap white-gold wine.
“How was the dig?” he asked, “there is always a carnal element to a summer of archaeology, tell all.”
I thought of the heat of her mouth, her honeyed bits, stippled folds of darker flesh, the clotted blossom of her hair, the lemonpeel tang-taste of bodysweat: not a flavour, more a feeling, like salt or sweet or sour. [Skin glides over skin.]
It was about as fun as cold porridge to talk about such things. So I told him about a summer full of days that refused to die, about:
the sharp staccato sound of pickaxes on rock,
thick red clay,
symphonies of croaking cicadas,
the way dust, the chaff of archaeology,
formed smoky djinn in the wind and air,
the slab of rune-etched stone,
discovered on the last day,
deep in the dry earth,
the enigmatic, eroded letters,
the impregnated, zero-round doughnut of a Θ,
the tripod of a Ψ,
reignited after aeons
by the ebbing sunlight slanting onto the carved obelisk.
“The last day, and a find like this.”
A solar event.
[It was impossible to be sane here.]
Standing in the stupid hot bliss of the shower that night, I washed city grime from skin burned to a deep apricot. The door of my bedroom opened like a grave. Her immaterial form hulked under the formlessness of the crumpled duvet. Wind rustled the sheets into flaccid nothingness, and the night ended in a miserable and diaphanous fit of the blues.
I woke with a phenomenal hangover, sat in the shower for thirty cold, drenching minutes, made the bed and coffee, took sertraline and paracetamol with a swig of soured orange juice, and lay back down on the smooth, sun-warmed bedsheets. The morning light was tangerine and tropical. I thought of incorporeal England, still existing out there, somewhere. I thought of a series of moments, just before returning to Greece:
The milk in the stainless steel pot hissed under the cranky Italianate coffee machine. I waved hello to the timeless café crowd, taking the cup in my good hand, the one without the sobbing scabs across torn knuckles.
The ‘Radio-Café’ had a red neon sign which alternated between lighting up the word ‘Radio’ or ‘Café’ with a low buzz and then an electrical click on the successful switch. It changed every seven seconds. The light had behaved like this since my parents had moved to the town; it had always done so and I, like the rest, saw no reason for it to ever stop. When I pictured the light’s eternal clicking — from 1 to 2 then back to 1 — I thought of everything.
I drove towards the river.
My father’s fishing hut was in the shade of a big green tree. It was made of planks now pale through weathering and a lack of varnish. Inside, there was a stock of cigarettes and bottled beer. A fishing rod hung on the wall above the unlit stove. I took a Spanish beer from the case and set it in a shallow spot in the river to cool. The flow originated in high mountains that glistened like wet knives, and the water was cold. I smoked a dark cigarette while I waited. The bottles showed nice and crisp in the water.
I had a headache, and could feel a metamorphosing hangover probe around for places to settle down in and lick itself. I drank the cold beer to stave it off — dogshair.
It was a good place to be: the dozy brown sun was not too harsh and the water made the air cool and bright and talkative. With nothing to read I though of the night before and felt the familiar romantic pain in my guts. It always came back, like a golem returning to its master with bloodied clay fists.
The door of the hut closed with a dry click. The fishing rod was broken, its end semi-sheared off like the severed halves of a snapped twig still connected by their velvety bark sheath. Ornamental, then. I hung it back up and stepped outside with another beer for the river. A car was driving down the track towards me. I took another beer and put them both in the river. The car stopped and my friend got out.
“Hey, I thought you’d be here,” they said.
“How’re you doing since yesterday?”
“She wants to know why.”
We walked together to the hut. He took the fishing rod down and looked at it.
“Ah, it’s broken.”
“Yeah, I think it’s always been like that.”
“You ever fished here?”
“No, never. You?”
I took the bottles from the water, and we drank them together sitting in the shade of the big green tree by the river.
“He was hurt pretty bad you know.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“You hurt him pretty bad.”
We watched the black and brown beetles flying around the river banks and between the reeds like clunky mechanical toys.
I thought of grubby love, hopping from agent to agent. I thought of magnificently insipid sentimental love, of my birthday when G and I were in Paris and she took me to eat at ‘L’Entrecôte’ in the 17th arrondissement and there were snowflakes.
I took out another dark cigarette and lighted it, left it hanging in my mouth.
The silence between us was sawn in half by a dragonfly.
Back in my new Greek room in the autumn heat, I took another sertraline. My brain twitched, accepting the chemicals. Lying back, I thought of the duelling intimacies of violence, its closenesses, all like a dance.
[“In multiple geographic theatres they have engaged in combat so intimate that they have emerged covered in bronze blood that was not their own.”]
Neither of us really won: I smote Hector and Hector smote me. [Achilleshector/Hectorachilles.] The insane linking of a couple. Men are strange things to love because of their powerful demarcation of their right to desire and their histories in Poland and Iraq and Bosnia and Cannae and Melos and elsewhere and everywhere, that Hector wanted his son to be even bloodier than he, that he left Andromache to go die on some stinking plain.
Getting out of bed, the sertraline, paracetamol, and coffee having done their tough work, I stepped into a puddle of guts: last night’s half-chewed gyros, pulped into the floor. Odysseus’ fate is to go on and on and on. He does not envy Hector and Achilles their early death, their eternal glory.
My phone rang, harsh and clear: Henry, Katy. We went for lunch.
The tree-trunks near the university campus wore the bright stapled scars of torn Marxist posters. Toast crackled in Katy’s hands. Coffee trickled down the side of a cup. Honey glowed like gemstone. Jam in a pot: thick, melted ruby, gooey as gummy sweets mashed between white teeth.
There was the punctuation of a cherry in Katy’s ice-cream sundae.
“We need to rid you of your blood pollution,” she said, as she threw a fleck of bacon at me.
I agreed to go to the country with them that weekend, to a large stone house somewhere in Boeotia.
Helena’s coming, Henry said, you’ll like her.
The morning after the first night there, we sprawled in the lounge, listening to the buzz of the cicadas and each other’s murmuring speech. Henry and Katy lay in an embrace in the nook of a slumping sofa, reading, the pages parted like legs in his lap.
I became an aficionado of indolent days. Always the entrancing smell of burning tobacco, hotter in the sunlight; the odour of cold tobacco from the stuffed, putrefying ashtrays in the shade.
Some mornings, when it was not too hot, Henry and I played at sword fighting with a pair of rusted sabres we discovered in the attic of the house, crunching the layer of pine needles on the dry lawn as we parried and lunged and copied duelling scenes from films. Dust settled like hoarfrost. Henry slid about quick as a darting caïman, jaguar-fierce. Each metal connection sent little harshnesses up to the house from our well-trod brown-and-green rectangle. Afterwards, we leapt into the pool to chill our superheated bodies.
The water was full of insects that were in various stages of drowning, unsheathing and sheathing and their barbed stingers to the tempo of a pulse as they scudded across rippling indigo. I tried to fish them out, but there were simply too many. It must have been full of dying moths at night, glimmering with their glitter and stardust. They were gone by daybreak, deliquescing in the chlorine-heavy water as the white discus of the sun formed in the sky.
A cicada fleeing a hunting bird disappeared down the cleavage of Katy’s swimsuit. She retrieved the comfortably croaking thing, and kissed it before letting it fly back towards the woods. A bird followed, low and black and swift.
They went to fetch iced water and wine as Helena woke from a nap in a shaded hammock. I sat on the steps of the veranda, skimming some pulpy novella. Shrapnel from the Greek sun slid into her skin. She thrashed about in the wreckage of a dissolving dream, hair in apoplexy. Waking, she looked around in dazed remembrance, sleepily restocking the storehouses of memory, somnambulant, doleful eyelids blinking faster and faster. She raised her face to absorb the light, exercising the heliotropic strain in her blood.
She fell out of the hammock with a twanging plop.
The flowers she had picked stood in a pot on the kitchen table, visible through the wide, open doors. They, like the painting of them hanging on the wall, emanated a sun-guzzling heat. Rusting oranges lay in a fruit bowl alongside bananas blotched like leopards.
[There is a slight aporia in my experience of time at this point. Memory: an assassin, the stuff of patterned artifice.]
She either sprang up and shook dust and cobwebs from her dress, uninjured, unfazed, the cloth shaving shapes into her body, or she sat on the floor, the dress an azure pond around her, picking leaves out of her hair with one hand and in the other holding a sharp piece of tesserae collected from a beach or hillside that had been in her pocket and pierced her right thigh during the fall, causing a thin trickle of blood to rivulet down the leg and collect and coagulate on the stone floor. The two images shudder, glitch, and I can’t decide between them.
This doublet of memories ends with the same scene: her standing at the top of the steps over me, the sky blotched with dusk, gold, and shade, a plate beside us encrusted with emerald flies. She kneels down, placing her arms over my shoulders, and I fall in the into the euphoric security of a foreign body, feeling a strange revolution overcome my senses.
Her gesture, so typically laden with meaning, might in fact have signified very little, and, as if to confirm this, she leaned over and whispered into my ear through our interlocking hair,
“We’ve already gone random, everything is already played for and lost, farewell clarity and meaning, we’ll never understand anything, and what’s more there’s nothing to understand, that’s our only secret.”
We sat there for a long time, side by side, melting into each other like two candles, until the bats began circling, hunting.
This memory has an almost physical impact, stuck for so long due to the frenzy caused by desire for the unattainable, made of that kind of trauma which rumbles like frost and sticks like ice in your guts and sloshes around down there as nuclear snowmelt.
The hot hiss of a shower sounded nearby, and the rest of the day fades into vapour, until the drive into the town that night.
It was just us and the deer and the snakes and the goats and the gorse and the raw patches of black ice and the cliff close to the thin, uneven road. The only other car was nothing but two tiny cones of light in the distance. The essence of movement and speed, of overtaking and urgency, passed into my heart, and the passion to be nudged into oblivion was overwhelming.
When we got to the town I saw, spray-painted on the wall opposite the restaurant, in stilted English letters,
Read about us and marvel!
You did not live in our time – be sorry!
The war of all against all!
Beside it was a sketch in charcoal of a person playing a two-stemmed aulos. I stared at the daubings all night as I drank and drank. They were placed directly behind Helena. The stilted vase-posture of the aulos-player kept it in a perpetual tension between movement and stillness. Bulbs from the restaurant gifted the images a divine play of shadow and light. Occasionally, my vision blurred and the writing and the figure split into two. Two sets of three devilish lines, two players, four stems, too many ginandtonics, ginhot breath and ginhot speech engulfing the table.
We ate and talked and were full of something drunkenly akin joy.
Then a beer bottle fell, clanging, and shattered just behind us, perhaps thrown. Henry's eyes were two gorgeous green pools of fright and surprise. There was an odour of roses coming from the perfumed dye of the tablecloth intermixed with spilt wine. We were all frightened apart from Helena, a styled coolness in her eye, charismatic hands folded in her lap, emitting a concerto of calm. Someone growled in back of the restaurant, and the night was full of promised violence.
And at that moment I realised she was almost an exact copy of Georgie. Down to the solarium eyes, their olive shape sketched in kohl, the scent of her hair, the brute and base hum of skin, the flower-waft perfume, the viper lips [but her bite was worse than the snake’s for its traces invaded the soul].
The coded chatter of a face, unscrambled: a million remembrances.
The tiny catastrophe of the bottle, the minuscule event coupled with the sight of her sunburned features shook me into remembrance, brought out this monstrous comparison. I looked back at the graffiti of the aulos-player. It was perfectly expressionless. An android face. I recognised myself in it.
The cusped moon alighted on a silent steeple.
As Helena revved the car into action ready to motor back to our villa, there was a long, lone male scream of anger in the night of the town.
Early morning: a wide avenue, copper sunlight, water full of blazing blue sky in the street and the gutters. The fresh smell of a waking town: dust, roasting coffee, and petrol fumes. The thrum of an air-conditioner in a marble foyer. Pure and cool and quiescent and intensely European.
Helena tripped up to the car with a paper bag full of baked things and greasy croissants and fell into the front seat. We began the drive back.
The future was behind us. Perhaps where we come from is always a function of where we are, or we are plunged into the future by the past, or both at the same time.
Back in Athens, I was exhausted from the trip, and spent a few days in languorous depression, coaxing out the nice bits of it, the wonderful woe and bliss of total self-absorption, savouring those tiny moments of anarchic cataclysm and tears, staring into the gape of the potential fall and utter failure: throwing in the PhD, diligently planning (down to trains, planes, apartments, language courses, embassies, paucities of British people) to get a minor job in some faraway, anonymous, ex-Soviet capital, some sumptuous wasteland, or take up shepherding on an empty steppe. But Georgie/Helena’s olive-shaped features would of course follow me there, haunt me set in the face of strangers, who would no doubt morph into exact copies of Georgie, whole Kazakstans of copies, a Georgia of Georgies. I gulped a few more days of pure sweet sad apartment air, then went to see Helena.
Of course she looked nothing like her. It had just been a simple moment of friendship, had meant nothing. She hadn’t whispered anything at all. A verbal hallucination. A garish miscarriage of an idea. It was just normal between us, oh so normal and dull. I felt sick and sticky and chaos began to fissure all of my many many cracks and split me apart. My face hit the zinc of the tabletop and infinite space was all around.
The smell of the road: of frost, of gas, of burnt rubber. At Piraeus, a port, another locus of travel, I planned escape to an island with some thin plan. The islands would at least be near-empty. The smell of the port: a mixture of iodine, fuel oil, and slightly stale shrimp. Glossy seaweed sucked by the lap of the tide and sea-swell lashed milkblue. And at Piraeus I expected you.
But you never appear, and I end up back at my Athenian apartment, back at the beginning of the new. And there is naturally an apocalypse of roadworks blasting outside, through the continuum of the present.
[Helen is in Troy and she is in Egypt. The Achaeans were tricked, they let themselves be tricked.]
But I/you (there has been a disconnection) are not from the Iliad, the closest thing I/you might be compared to (if we have to do this) is the Spartan king Cleomenes. Him-you-I take the knife to my skin and cut, and it’s pretty in those mad little moments for the blood isn’t dark but somewhat bright and cloudy and a pleasing colour.
I take the knife to my skin and cut myself into strips, like Cleomenes, like scoring the fat-cap on a piece of meat. Steering away from veins and arteries, you don’t die. You never get that close to an ancient example. The wounds open like the earth, incisions that smell of raw pork.
You hit a small artery and fine pink mist fills the air.
As if it were the most natural thing in the world.
And the blood seems to mean something dripping down your arm. You take it onto your fingers, like something from sex, like some emission or effluvia, and watch it harden.
The haemorrhaging slices make a carmine mosaic of the browned skin that Mum says is French-Romany gypsy, the heritage she is most proud of.
Then you smear it on your face, breaking the proteins and platelets so it runs smooth and wet, like paint mixed with water.
The flow staunches and stops. Eventually you see a reflection in a mirror, the ruined arms caught in an arc of light. For a while you manage to gaze at the spectacle in all its magnificent ridiculousness, at this histrionic communication attempted with life’s warp and baffle, and it is absurd.
You get into the heat of the shower and it all comes sliding off and away.
In the coming days cinnamon-brown scabs begin to form beneath blue wool veiling a theatre of inscription.
The third part of the loosely plotted series We Other Greeks can be found here.
For quotations I gratefully acknowledge: Jacques Derrida, Emily Wilson, Homer, Geoffrey Bennington, and The New York Times.
Sphinx devoured by the lions
Oil paint, silver leaf, adhesive, on printed paper
From the series 'The Dying Pythia'