Of Clay

by Joshua Barley

I had long seen clearly that a great part of the pleasure

of travel lies in the fulfilment of these early wishes – that it is

rooted, that is, in dissatisfaction with home and family.

A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis, Sigmund Freud (tr. James Strachey)

Wherever I travel, Greece wounds me

In the Manner of G.S., George Seferis

I used to think that there was something particular about loving Greece – that it was not like loving any other country. We were more devoted than those who loved and lived in Italy, France or Spain; disciples rather than admirers. Disciples in a cult whose sacred precinct was the very landscape of Greece; whose elements were the light, the sea, the mountains; whose rite of passage was travel. For such disciples, Greece could do no wrong. It was like being in love – not agape, but eros, with its muddy admixture of dependence and will to possession.

I haven’t quite rejected this view, and there are moments of sharp memory when I feel a physical pull back to that country. I think of light on sea, light on mountain, mountain on sea. More than those, I think of Niko and Olivia. Even here, from the point of view of this hazy village in the Serbian hills, I feel my hand clench at the thought of them. My stomach tightens; I need to reclaim breath. But I don’t want to erase the memory, nor falsify the enchantment. Like Leonard Cohen said, imitating Cavafy, who was imitating Mark Antony: I don’t want to stoop to strategies like this.

The fact that Niko’s funeral is today, so I hear, certainly gives poignancy to this day. It’s the ‘end of an era’ for all of us – for Niko, quite blatantly, for his many students, for Olivia, but also for me. For there was a time when Niko held me in a thrall that was the same as that of Greece itself. He was the darling of the foreign travellers – a polyglot and a polymath, with the sense of life that we philhellenes associated with Greece, that we believed to typify the ‘Greek spirit’. An archaeologist by trade, he had carried out several noteworthy excavations in the Cyclades, from where he claimed ancestry, and had recently been honoured as a member of the Academy. He was a fine story-teller, with a command of English that made him sound more of an Edwardian gentleman than a Greek. For a young man who had come to Greece with the Colossus of Maroussi under his arm, meeting Niko was as rare as meeting a mythical being – a centaur on Pelion. 

The illness had hit him hard and fast. At that time I hadn’t known him and Olivia long – I had only been in Greece for a couple of months, but they had become family. They had adopted me, they liked to say – which, I recognise, is quite a typical instinct, especially among childless couples like Niko and Olivia. I am self-aware enough to know that I have a waifish air of vulnerability about me, inviting protection and education. I was at their house most evenings, giving Niko the audience that he craved. There was nothing he liked more than expounding on various aspects of the Greek tradition – antique art, medieval theology or modern poetry, or all of them at once, linking them together in the way I had read about; the ‘great Helleno-Christian synthesis’. His discourses were set-pieces – and I noticed that Olivia would always absent herself when he began – but they were finely-crafted and as gripping as any story of his own life.

An unusually long break from these soirées preceded the bad news, which arrived in an abrupt text from Olivia one afternoon in June.  She had told me nothing until the egg-like tumour had been successfully removed from his colon. As I waited outside intensive care I was preparing myself for a different Niko – an uncommunicative relic. I couldn’t have been more wrong: upon my entry, the supine figure almost ripped out all his tubes with joy, causing consternation among the staff. 

That was Niko. He was life itself. He had no truck with death. ‘When we die,’ he liked to say – and I can only assume that this aphorism was the result of a life spent digging his own earth – ‘everything will return to its own place: calcium to calcium, iron to iron, silicon to silicon and all the other elements likewise. Do you see’ he would say, ‘that nothing is really lost?’ He was born of the Cycladic earth and he’ll be going back to it now. 

‘He’s made of strong stuff,’ the nurse had said, blushing, as she ushered me out of intensive care. Niko could flirt with anyone. 

 

Athens was entering summer like a withering flower, emitting sickly-sweet smells and scattering dusty pollen in gusts of wind. I accompanied Olivia from the hospital to their house in Thiseio, since she had been advised that Niko should be left alone to rest. We walked together along the acacia-lined streets of Kolonaki, then down the long, hot avenue to Syntagma Square. On Ermou she took my arm and at Monastiraki we stopped for a kebab and a beer. Given the circumstances, we were surprisingly carefree – I suppose we had both been heartened by the life of her husband. And when we arrived at the house, we talked long enough outside the bottle-green, iron gate for her to invite me inside.

Niko and Olivia lived in a neoclassical house – a characteristic example of the pretty, but hard to maintain, Athenian bourgeois dwellings, whose style was imported from Western Europe in the 19th century. Many of the other examples in the neighbourhood were falling down, often leaving merely a column-clad, pedimented façade, like a shed cicada skin. Niko had bought the place after his marriage to Olivia. He had defiantly restored it to its former stature, with his own lithe, archaeologist’s hands. His chief pride was in the decoration around the eaves: a line of embossed ‘teeth’, underneath a sky-blue band, and then, resting on the undulating tiles above, a row of terracotta antefixes in the shape of acanthus leaves. 

It was during the restoration that Niko had become interested in the manufacture of clay objects. He had bought a disused shop in Keramikos, just across the railway line, and turned it into a kiln. With considerable dedication, and after throwing away countless failed moulds, he became adept in the production of the antefixes for his house. But he didn’t stop there; he developed an obsession with the craft, and routinely spent several hours of the day at his workshop. After he finished the house he made anything, purely for pleasure, beginning with typical motifs of Greek folklore: smiling suns, mermaids, owls, dolphins. Then he progressed to making copies of the primitive Cycladic figurines that he had dug up at his excavations – triangular, archetypal mother-goddess figures, the vestiges of a civilisation that had begun and ended millennia ago. Somehow he felt a deep attachment to these figures, being made of the very earth of his homeland, and he saw his recreation of them as a mystical process, binding him with his land, with the millennia of tradition, with his ‘ancient ancestors’. He even brought a symbolic bag of earth from his house on Naxos to add to the mix of clay.

Soon he realised that what he was doing was recreating all the finds of his working life. He liked this idea – that he was creating a kind of museum of himself – and he liked to think that someone in the future would be able to visit the house and trace the passage of his life through the collection of artefacts. Once he had the mould prepared, he could produce these figurines in great quantities, and he gave them to former colleagues and friends. He had even begun a frieze around the perimeter of the upper floor of the house, with scenes of the places he had lived and worked. I suppose that some would have found the whole thing kitsch, but at the time I saw only genius.  

I am mentioning this mainly to give an image of the building that Olivia and I entered that summer evening. It was late but we were in the mood for talking, and Olivia brought two chairs and a bottle of Metaxa onto the terrace. There, perched on uneven paving stones – legacy of old earthquakes –and surrounded by Niko’s pantheon of clay, she told me about her own life, a story that had been elbowed to the side, subdued too often under Niko’s effervescence. It was the first time I had heard her talk about her life, and she told the stories well, lending the right amount of serendipity to each unexpected turn. A distinguished start of an academic career at Princeton led to fieldwork in Greece, to the entanglement with the archaeologist, to the final abandonment of her PhD and her homeland to follow the older man on the other side of an ocean. When she spoke of him, as when she spoke of Greece, there was still something of the glint and spark of the first encounter, but it was mixed with the knowledge that both loves had irrevocably hindered so much in her own life. Many of the stories were abruptly brought short. She wasn’t quite disillusioned with either Niko or Greece, but there was weariness in her affection – and she archly dismissed his clay imitations as ‘neo-narcissisms’. 

‘I refuse to become another one of those ridiculous objects,’ she said, as I picked up a clay woman from the table, running my fingers over its coarse surface. ‘I am not reproducible.’ She looked at me kindly, then her eyes caught mine. We both felt it – there was nothing reproducible about that moment.

As she continued speaking, I was watching the lines around her mouth move with their mechanical precision, furrowing and smoothing, and I admired the depth of colour of her face in the pale yellow light of the lamp, and the supple spring of her skin. ‘Greece has kept me young’, is something I remember her saying, in that characteristic way she has of personifying the country. It was true; the skin, despite its impurities – its tiny red pimples like needle-heads; its dark sun-spots and freckles – was still young; it wanted to be touched. It would respond to touch.  I looked up from a third glass of Metaxa to see that her face was closer to mine and she wasn’t smiling anymore, but her mouth was slightly open in a questioning way, and then, almost inadvertently, my mouth was upon her mouth. 

‘I think you’d better come with me,’ was what she said next, and I followed her inside like an obedient child to the bed she shared with Niko.

 

You could call it an affair, the next stage in the story; you could call it a pattern. I know at least that we justified it in the way of so many others –the stress of Niko’s illness; the loss of tenderness in the marriage. His obsessions didn’t help – with his work, his pottery. They spent little time together. And she was convinced that he had been with other women. A character like his was perpetually open; it was inconceivable, she said, that others hadn’t fallen for his blend of sophistication and rugged, earthy charm – she could still name his qualities – and that he hadn’t given in return. ‘There is something uncontainable about Niko,’ she would say. I had the feeling she had said it many times before.

‘And you’ll go away too, won’t you,’ she would continue.

‘Of course not.’

‘You will.’

‘I won’t.’

‘But I want you to.’

It was during such exchanges that I noticed the transformation. What had begun as covert and exciting afternoon trips, was now the only activity of meaning in my days. I found myself walking faster, or too hurriedly, to the house, not noticing anything around me. I would arrive and have to catch my breath. Pausing outside the bottle-green gate, I would think, ‘I am about to step into another world; all my feelings will be different on the other side.’ I would imagine what would happen beyond the gate, I would boil in fantasy. Then she would buzz me in and motion for me to be silent because she was on the phone – to Niko, perhaps, or to a relation in America, and I would resent the phone call, I would say, ‘She’s doing it on purpose, why does she need to be speaking on the phone now, put the bloody thing down.’ I have grown to know that internal voice very well– a voice that gathers momentum and wants to burst out of my throat.

When Niko returned at last from hospital, the already delicate balance was thrown. It was his sickness that allowed Olivia and me our physical closeness. More than that, we had talked him into nonexistence. He had become a caricature, an object that was monitored and controlled. When he came home, the relationship was driven further underground. But I could not detach from it; I could not step away from that gate and remain whole. 

Enforced detachment eventually came. Niko was granted a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. His miraculous recovery, it appeared, was complete. Olivia would follow him to her alma mater and make the most of the time to see her family – even ‘do something of her own’, as Niko liked to say, in a way that was guaranteed to infuriate her. 

I drove them to the airport on the day of their departure, took their suitcases out of the boot and waved them off, maintaining a façade of well-wishing. But when I was back in Athens, I walked onto the hill by their house and sat on a rock and stared across the Saronic Gulf, as inside me a cavity grew wider and deeper. The sun set and I was still sitting there, seized up, unwilling to move my limbs. 

*

I didn’t leave Greece, but spent my time on the projects I had begun during the previous year. I tried to promote the work of a couple of Greek poets, publishing in journals. Niko had given me contacts at museums, and I translated exhibition catalogues and panels to make ends meet. I saw a couple of Greek girls, becoming very excited and very disenchanted in quick succession. I took an interest in the Orthodox Church, started kissing icons. I met an Athonite monk, a Serbian called Sotir, who had all but abandoned his monastery and was living ‘in the world’. We became friends. He invited me to his father’s summer house. 

A few days before I was due to go, a message arrived, almost a year to the day after the first news of illness. 

‘Come to Evangelismos. Niko is bad.’

I didn’t even know they were in Athens. Niko’s health had deteriorated and he had refused treatment in the US in order to return to Greece. I hadn’t been told.

I cancelled all appointments – rather, forgot them all. I was soon at the hospital, and soon walking back to Thiseio with Olivia on another summer evening a year after the first, lingering by the bottle-green gate. I thought I could accept what was about to happen on the other side, that I could contain it. But when we were on the terrace, surrounded by those figurines, I stared at her face like I was seeing it for the first time. I wanted to have it entirely. And when I held her again, I was an empty bottle being filled up. I couldn’t hold her close enough. 

In the morning we drank coffee on the terrace in the old haze of unity. And then the phone rang. The outside world intruded like a rush of wind. I felt the familiar queasiness and knew what was coming. The loudness built up, the place doubled its dimensions, the clay figures rose and stared menacingly down at me, the old cacophony of emotions was at the gate with a battering ram.

How could I escape the repetition?

I left. I texted Sotir and the next morning I was at the station, buying a ticket and a koulouri for the journey.

 

The 7.30 train to Thessaloniki was almost empty, and I found myself alone in a compartment. The train snaked backwards, following Constantinople Street out of the city, and I watched rows of white houses retreating and dwindling. I fell into the blank stupor of an early morning journey, happy that the scenery could change without me playing any role in it. Olivia came into my thoughts frequently, but distantly – a fond memory. I observed the stillness in my mind, brought on by the numbness of the journey, and I was pleased. Nonetheless, I sent her a message – a message of calm finality. 

The route north was familiar from several previous journeys, and I enjoyed it like re-reading a book, each mountain a chapter: Parnitha, Parnassus, Giona, Iti, each peak a god’s leap from the next. Then came the low long-jump over flat Thessaly to Ossa, and finally, the journey’s crowning glory, Olympus. Mountain peaks reared up at the window, hemming the train in beside the sea on the other side.

 

I had lunch in Thessaloniki, in an anonymous place in the square of the oldest church in the city, a phenomenally old one, brutal like a Roman barracks, where they ladled great slops of meatballs into a big bowl and the sun came down like daggers. Then I walked back to the station when the heat got heavy. Olivia should have replied by now.

Greece has cut its international railway lines, so they put us on a bus at the station and we drove through mountainless terrain towards the border. At some point, numb again, I was shaken awake by the vibration of my phone. A tug in my belly.

 

‘Niko died this morning, serene as a saint. I’m arranging the funeral. Taking him to Naxos tomorrow. It will be hard to speak. Be strong for me.’

I put the phone down and looked out of the window at the grasslands of Paeonia. Truths appeared in succession. Olivia was right – I had left. And she was alone. She needed support and I could not be – could never be – that support. I felt a great sinking. And then, with creeping stealth, something else – mixed with guilt, a loathing of Niko. It was selfish of him to die. By dying he was taking Olivia away. Another truth: she would return to America. But even if she didn’t, Niko would spread over everything like a cloud; he would cover us.

I thought of his collection of clay creations, sitting alone in the house without their creator, their prototype. The house would be sold, sooner or later, and the objects would be scattered or destroyed. It was surely inevitable. I wondered whether he had ever really believed all that talk about making monuments to his life. The self-satisfaction irked me – was it really possible to die so contentedly, so fulfilled? With such a well-crafted beginning, middle and end? It was complacent of him to think so. And those ridiculous objects… yes, kitsch was the word.

At the border we switched to a train and the passengers dispersed among the carriages like ants into their holes. I chose a compartment with no one in at all, opened the window and lay down on the hard couchette. It was almost dark now and through the window I looked at upside-down corn fields rolling by above deep blue light, interrupted occasionally by a strawberry moon. The smell of sheep drifted in on the warm air. There was no sleep. I began thinking of Olivia, of a ferry journey we had made to Amorgos overnight in the early days, some time when Niko was away on a lecture tour after his recovery. We had taken a cabin and eschewed the upper bunk to spend the night together in a tiny bed like this one. I don’t remember much of the boat, nor anyone else – in the memory we are entirely alone. I remember waking and going together onto deck and watching the bulks of islands thickening in the grey light before sunrise, as the boat drifted through the archipelago. Olivia knew the shape of each island we passed, could recognise it from the shape of the mountains. She told me I would learn them too, in time, that I would learn the language of this landscape.

 

‘I want to make love to you in this sea,’ she whispered. ‘In the shallow waves.’ 

I brought my fist down hard onto the couchette, shattering the memory. I looked at my phone again. ‘Be strong for me’ – why, and how? Then I imagined Niko lying in some container in a cold morgue and guilt overtook me again. 

At Skopje I stood in the corridor, looking into the box-houses that lined the track, alternately lit or not lit, like a long line of Morse code. We picked up a few passengers, hardly enough to fill the train. I was still standing in the corridor when we left again. The bustle of boarding passengers became muffled sounds of shoes being taken off and blankets thrown over bodies, and then there was silence. 

One passenger, like me, hadn’t settled into a compartment. She had a large hiking backpack still on her back, and birds-nest hair. She was looking out of a window a little further down the carriage and I could make out the profile of a strong Slavic nose. I felt a sense of sympathy towards her. We would quite have no language in common. But that was alright – even better. Something came into my head like a new idea. A kind of solution.

We stood there a while looking out of our separate windows, without saying anything, but becoming intensely aware of each other’s presence. Shortly she came and stood beside me, still looking out of the window into the darkness beyond her own semi-reflection, deliberately not looking at me. She put her backpack down. Then she shuffled closer until we were almost touching. The idea in my mind reached a level of absolute certainty, and it flooded down through my shoulders into my chest like warm honey. 

I put my arm around her and then she looked, curly hair falling half across a pretty face. I pulled her into my compartment and we were on the hard, grubby bed and her soft mouth was on mine and I felt all the tension of the day flowing out of me from my flesh into her flesh, and then I felt myself hardening and she felt it too and she took off my clothes. I took off hers too and we were grappling with each other, amassing static charge as we rolled over the rough polyester of the seat covers. With a violent wrench I heard something crack beneath us. My body went limp and there was a desperate feeling inside me of utter futility. 

‘What?’ she said in English. There was a sordid look on her face.

‘Sorry.’

We lay next to each other and fell asleep at that anonymous hour. I dreamed of the sea, of a great sea with schools of fish leaping out of it. It wasn’t idyllic – the fish were too many and too big, monstrously big. I was woken by the glaring light of a station in southern Serbia. There was knocking on the Perspex window of the compartment but we were silent and they went away. 

*

Banja, a couple of hours north of Belgrade, is a spa village surrounded by low wooded hills. A stream runs through the middle, on one side of which rises the older part of the village in a grid of reddish dirt roads. The houses, wooden or concrete, have pitched, tiled roofs and fenced front gardens. On the other side of the stream is a hotel complex from the ‘70s, of red-brick buildings arranged around lawns, swimming pools and tennis courts. There are two restaurants, though indistinguishable in their meaty offerings, with their tables and chairs arrayed under wooden canopies. It’s a fashionable place for Serbs to spend a week or two in the summer, putting their bodies back in order with massages and healing springs. Serbia has no sea. 

A couple of days ago Sotir met me off the bus and took me to his father’s house, a few roads uphill from the stream. There was no space for me there but he had arranged a room in a house next door, run by a stocky, lively widow called Gotsa. She is everything you want in a landlady – rosy-cheeked, clucks around me like her hens, and makes formidable breakfasts. She has a goat that she milks in the morning. I put the milk in my coffee and it forms a thick layer of fat that bobs up and down. My room is bare apart from its big wooden bed and the marks of endless slaughtered mosquitoes on the wall like an abstract work of art. 

When I had slept off the journey in that suffocating room, I took a walk along the stream. The air was still and hot, without a breeze. Olivia was the ghost at my side. I liked the fruit trees, apples and plums, so different from Greece. They reminded me of England. At some point, when the path climbed above the valley, the stream formed a pool. There was no one around so I took off my clothes and stepped into the freezing water. I lowered myself without flinching until my whole body was flat in the shallows and I stayed there until I couldn’t feel anything. 

‘I want to make love to you in the sea… in the shallow waves’. 

We had never done that. Why had she said that, why had she said that if it was never going to happen – the voice swelled in my head until eventually I forced myself out and walked back to the village. There was a chorus of crickets and frogs all through the meadows. 

In the evening Sotir made us gin and tonics in his garden. ‘What a divine feeling he said,’ on the first sip. I like his iconoclastic humour. Then his father brought out popcorn he had made and we watched the moon come up like the opening of a great movie. 

Sotir, relieved of any imminent danger of heartbreak, was a good comforter. ‘Do you remember Saul?’ he said, without waiting for an answer. Saul had been looking for his father’s lost asses. He had looked for them high and low for three days, without luck. And when he was on the point of turning back, he went to a city, where he met the prophet Samuel. And Samuel took him to the top of a mountain and declared not only that the asses were found but, rather more significantly, that he would inherit the kingdom of Israel. ‘What I’m saying… what I mean…’ Sotir concluded, ‘is that Saul went to look for his father’s asses and he found a kingdom. Do you see? Do you?’

‘Perhaps.’ I laughed, tipsy now.

He continued, unfazed. The story reminded him, he said, of his own sequence of revelations in his life. The first was his very conviction to become a monk, something he had never contemplated during his urbane career as a lawyer in Belgrade. It was when his best friend succumbed to AIDS, an event that he had found almost impossible to come to terms with, that his course of life was altered. On a chance visit to the monastery of Mileseva he had seen the White Angel over the empty tomb and suddenly understood with great certainty the powerlessness of death. He didn’t leave the monastery that day, nor for several years after. The second revelation was when he abandoned Mileseva without a word to his superiors, and acted on his utter conviction to live on the Holy Mountain. This part of the story revolved around a long journey by train to Greece, with only a few coins in his pocket. There, he was sure, on that supremely beautiful promontory in the Aegean – that perfect symphony of mountain, sea and light – that he had reached his destination. But how could he have known that after thirteen years he would be disillusioned too with Athos – the Mecca, as he mischievously put it, of any Orthodox monk – and abandon it for a life in the world. The alcohol in his blood spurred him onto an attack on his fellow monks and their unswerving beliefs – his voice took a noticeably ironic note and I could almost hear his eyes rolling when he spoke of their slavish adherence to ‘The Scriptures’, or ‘The Bible’. Now, he said as he poured us each a fourth gin and tonic, he knew that anything was possible and life was spread before him like all the constellations of the heavens. We both looked up but the moon was bright and no stars were visible. Anyway, he said, undeterred, he was thinking of going to New York – he had always wanted to make a film, and he had some pretty good connections there – and yes, why not, what about Hollywood.

Despite all this, he said, coming down to earth and trying to remember why he had set out on this narrative – despite all these apparently disjointed threads, there was clearly some logic to it all. And when I look at it backwards, he said, it all just about sticks together.

I left his garden in perfect stillness. On the electricity wire above the dirt track were perched dozens of fish-like shapes, sitting at various angles, like clay decorations on the roof of a house. I looked at them for a moment in perplexity, wondering how a shoal of fish could be perched on a wire like that, and then, in a flurry of fins, they all swooped off together through the milky air.

 

Today I had a breakfast of bekendex in one of the hotel’s restaurants. It took me a while to retrace the etymology of this word to ‘bacon and eggs’. They were deliciously fatty – the perfect medication after last night’s drinks. Then I lay by the pool all day watching the sun move through the branches of a poplar, listening to the clatter of unintelligible Serbian words around me. I am making a small lexicon and I hope that in a few days I will be able to put a sentence together. The alphabet, at least, is familiar from Greek. 

Late in the afternoon I noticed another pool where people cover themselves in a greenish, muddy substance that hardens in the sun and turns brown. It was therapeutic clay. I went over to join them and we all stood there like figurines. We couldn’t move at all. None of us knew each other, and we simply stood still and stared in a kind of gormless daze, relieved of any need for interaction by the stiffening of our physical capabilities. Some had even covered their eyes and they couldn’t see anything. I rather liked standing there with the mud slurping over my ankles. The enforced lack of movement brought a sense of calm, and I felt myself breathing normally again at last. 

I would like to be able to stand caked in mud all day and not think about anything, not the past nor the future, not Niko or Olivia, not England or Greece, not what I have been or could be, until all that mud is hardened and ready to be fired. It’s not quite hammered gold or gold enamelling, but it’ll do. I would sit on my friends’ walls and stare at them, just like Niko imagined for himself. And they would look at my relics and make up their own minds about whether the episodes of my life have been characterised by a sense of adventure or a sense of cowardice, by sympathy or selfishness, by a true love of Greece or by its opposite, which is a kind of exploitation; or by none of these oppositions and just a random, muddy agglomeration of impulses and reactions. But while in nature you have to break the clay – you get hungry, you fall in love, you travel. I’m not sure where I’ll go, but it won’t be south. Not yet. There’s an endless land of low hills before me, spread out like a rippled carpet. When I walk out of the village and look at it I think, there is nothing, absolutely nothing I can make of this. There are no landmarks to guide me. There is no coast, no mountain, just endless land.

Joshua Barleys translations of Michalis Ganas (with David Connolly) were published by Yale University Press in 2019. An anthology of Greek folk songs in translation is forthcoming from Aiora Press in 2021. He lives in Athens. 

 

Read more of Joshua Barley’s prose in Pericles at Play

Epitaph

On the Koile Road

Image:

Figure of Eros

Greek, Hellenistic Period, Myrina, 150-100 BC

3880, Freud Museum London

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