We Other Greeks
By Tom Willis
Georgie stopped outside the restaurant. Its scarlet-and-white sign read, curved, swept the word Taverna in a semicircle of English letters.
A glass full of bronze beer and white froth rested on the bar as two women clicked down dominos, revolving black cigarettes in the corners of their mouths.
The dominos were stamped ingots, and the game formed a sprawl, a ledger, on the tabletop. Two sixes found each other, placed down by fingers inked with tobacco stains. The stubs of their spent cigarettes plumed smoky ringlets into the air.
A compact white skyline. Blocks of stone bright white with limewash.
The taverna’s TV played the AEK game. There was the sound of a catapulting kick. The impact of the ball swelled the back of the goal’s net like an opening parachute, or a swimming jellyfish. An overhead camera-shot showed the net subside back into loose rigidity after a couple more ripples and aftershocks. The TV repeated the image in slow motion, until the picture changed to a man in a striped, wasp-yellow shirt celebrating his goal.
The smell of cooking, vegetation, fruit, and heat sweetened this little recess of Athens.
A chef slopped a piece of offal and a couple of kidneys into a greased and smoking pan. Blood trickled away from them as they described an arc from fridge-cold case to superheated iron.
Some of the blood flowed away from the kitchen and towards the trees and into the soil. It turned it wet and purple like Nile mud.
The underside of the kidney was a deep brown. The rest was light-lung-pink. The chef flipped it over, causing it to chatter and spit fat in the pan. The blood at my feet looked more like cherryade than animal emission.
Georgie said, “let’s go in.”
We had some very real liver: a tang of cordite, pissy; melted texture, nothing solid, gooey like gummy sweets. And prawns, and cheese. And a glut of Greek salad. We were now sick of Greek salad. We now loathed Greek salad.
A heifer hung up like a sacrifice in the meat market. Large sheep, fat goats, big pigs. Dead animals — meat and fish — on a market street. Buckets of pellucid, semisolid fat. At a stand, Fanta seethed from a drinks dispenser.
Georgie put her white arm around her beer like a swan sheltering a cygnet in the plumage of its wing. It warmed and beaded in the soft crook. The same froth as before, a deeper, shaded, golden bronze.
The spigot on the bar cascaded a bit more of the Minos-liquid into a frosted glass. She sniggered at something on her phone. The glowing coals fumed under the grill.
Georgie lanced the last piece of fried feta, sucked the dregs of brainsauce from the head of a pinkly translucent prawn, and declared it time to go.
It was difficult to move around the morass of Americans at the entrance gate to the ancient Agora, but we eventually got in, and stood in front of a couple of decapitated and acid-rain-worn statues for a while.
A Freikorps of kids in grimy sportswear sauntered down the street and stood at the railings. The train cruised past on the track cut through the site.
We took in a few inscriptions at the Epigraphic Museum. Lists of first fruits, ships, and money to be sent to the League in Athens. Treaties with Alexander. Various people’s love of honour. Abundant encomia. Wars. All listed in pretty, repetitive phraseologies, endlessly reinscribed onto the stones.
One stele read:
Take care of those sailing…
… to Achaea…
…from the sacred fund; and they shall make for Dionysos cult equipment…
…of the gods the money arising from the sale of skins of sacrificial animals…
“I’m having a perfect day,” Georgie said at the aquamarine, spring-fed lake, sitting on a lounger, swatting beerfoam from the belly of her swimsuit.
We breathed in the warming steam that came from our cups and purled through our wet hair as we waited in Vouliagmeni for the bus back to Helliniko, watching the gloaming gather over the sea.
A woman played the violin by the exit of the Metro station. Its tune echoed through the underpass.
“Did you know that nowhere in classical literature will you find a reference to Lycabettus Hill?” Georgie asked, staring it up at it.
“No,” I replied.
“Yeah,” Georgie said.
“It’s so big though, so prominent.”
“As far as we know it seems to have been overrun with wolves,” she quoted from a book about Berlin in the 30s.
Our old friends, Henry and Katy, who lived in Greece, came to meet us for a drink that evening. We had a first beer at the garden table of our rented house. Around the window, a bright and verdant vine hung thick with grapes. It spread across the garden, a wiry and light-brown ceiling, the fruit used to make muscat wine in the broad yard. Above it there were strands of copper wire forming a pattern of metal lacework.
When we had drunk the beer, we walked into town, conversation fissuring and spluttering and sinking between the four of us until we sat down at a table in the Painted Stoa and had a drink and looked down into the depths and pits of the American Excavations beside us, where the actual, ancient Painted Stoa lay covered in tarp. It was full of cats, some corpulent with pregnancy. We drank triple sec over ice, and began to speak with a supernatural sympathy that felt very pure and precious and true, and, as we drank more and more of the silkily coruscating liquid, vaguely nootropic and transcendental.
I thought I would never have another moment or series of moments like this again in my life. We all thought it, I could tell. It was a communion of souls, and we pressed hard against the potentiality of it dissipating until we were practically shrieking into the night next to us so loud and busy with city noise.
The drinking turned, and grew worse and woozily sickly sweet and the feeling sort of went and was replaced with something akin to trigonometry, all angles and fractures and hard corners. Instead of thinking about it, I concentrated on the venial, soppy rain lit into refulgent shafts of falling neon by the yellow lamps of the Temple of Hephaestus. Its chubby pulse beat down on the tin roof. I felt purged of something: nymphlike, newt-like, new, shortchanged, cheated, foolish. We ate some lemon-soaked stuff: kebabs, probably. My fingers smelt of raw onion. I slipped a piece of bread into a bowl of tzatziki powerfully flavoured with garlic and pooled on top with unguent green olive oil. It tasted of copper. The grated strands of cucumber made their way around my mouth like little wet leeches.
Then we went home to bed, with anything resembling a mystical euphony banished into the midnight tonalities of the city going past quickly outside the unlit cab.
I had forgotten, but we had all agreed to go to Thessaloniki. The train took the route where the track is suspended on a ledge beside a cliff-face, and the plain of Thessaly speckled with orange‐tiled villas is low in front of you and the engine clicks off and the train glides soundlessly along its rails through gullies and tunnels cut into the rock.
As the outside turned dark, trees and lights shot past us like tracer bullets in the night sky.
We admired the city and its pretty sweep of plazas running from the Roman Agora through the park to the modern square and then the port and then the sea, and, on a good day, Mount Olympus, occluded and made blue by rising seasteam and sun-trickery. The Rotunda squatted imperially in the centre of the city. We drank honey-sweetened retsina in the café where once the highest tier of the Roman theatre would have stood on struts above us but was now marked on the cobbles in a semicircle of darker stones.
The green country outside Thessaloniki towards the lakes with the water buffalo, before the hills, but far away, was reminiscent of the brachylogy of my homeland’s purple heaths, sparse and low and dewy and covered in gorse, though the smell was different, better: crackles of dry wind brought the perfume of hot lavender, tarragon, and sweet sage. Over the landscape the Greek light splintered as if it could kill.
When Georgie was sleeping in the afternoon in the bedroom of the rented apartment, I looked at the redspeckled mountain flowers we had picked and placed in a glass of water, the wispy stamens and vulvic sepals, the pollen dusting the tabletop, all lit up too much, petals turned to gems, struck with little bombs and mortar rounds of sunlight.
I whisked a couple of halcyon egg yolks as Georgie woke up. The fish in the fridge had scales like gold coins even in the harsh whiteness of the interior eco-bulb.
“…the metaphysical quality of the Greek light…”
She stretched and made a noise like a boiling lobster — a slight squeak — then tackled the eggs.
“I’m stressed,” Georgie said, wiping her yellow mouth.
“About what?” I replied.
“Y’know,” Georgie said.
We had this conversation most afternoons. And most mornings. She would sit, seemingly bright and peppy at the table, blonde hair made dark with water, clagging in strips down the sides of her face, the TLS folded at her elbow.
And over the guillotine of the breakfast table we would talk, starting or restarting the day with bitter coffee and the split runny liquid of the egg, cutting up the world with language.
She began to search through her bag, found a crumpled paper box with visible relief, popped a pill from its aluminium casing, and slotted the violet capsule into her mouth. It clicked on a front tooth. The doctor said she wasn’t to drink grapefruit juice.
Then Henry and Katy came back with party supplies: streamers, cake, alcohol, champagne, and balloons.
She stood in the cloud-white morning, staring into the sky unable or unwilling or both to take the teabag out of the cup stunned by all there is and all there might have been stuck staring stultified by the effort of removing a teabag from a cup and taking it over to the bin and activating the mechanism and dropping it in and adding the milk and drinking all of it steamy and nice and good but that was all much too much and she just stared into the stark effacing blue gathering in the white.
Athens smelt bin-sweet on our return, like rotten lettuces, like full nappies left in a warm hallway, dotted with malodorous middens of uncollected rubbish. Tourists were still inhabiting the city, enjoying the preternaturally Indian summer, standing near the Temple of Zeus, cooing meaning into the sad air from behind barriers.
The things she said and the way she said them formed something desirably ineffaceable within me: an ineluctable feeling at the point of impossible reciprocation. Dense like Tunisian orange cake. As destructive to previous felt things as salt-flakes scattered on scorched earth, her meaning artfully upgraded since the beginning of the affair.
For something to do, we went to Sounion. We saw the temple, then went down to the beach. Katy had a sugary iced cappuccino next to her stuck into a divot in the sand. From it she took long and pensive sips. The coffee mixture travelled up the green straw as if it had been summoned. Every now and then she would turn to Georgie and they would talk, squinting at the technicolour beach.
The towel Henry brought was erected above us to create a patch of shade. It reflected the madly electric-blue light-currents from the sea on its underside. I swam in the vision of it, gently poached on lunchtime beer. Two men kicked a rubber football back and forth, boinging it across the hot stones. Beyond the rockpools volcanic stone cragged into sharp formations, a landscape of points, and so the children who went to collect hermit crabs and tiny fish and softshelled shrimp for their buckets were just as likely to come back with crimson gashes across their knees.
Henry’s swimming trunks were garish and short. He decided to go out into the water, and quickly found the ancient ship-sheds carved into the cliffside. But as he clambered out to survey them, he slipped, groped at some fronds of seaweed, missed, and fell with all the lavish gravity of a comic strip: arms out, akimbo, wheeling, legs askew, tumbling, a big splash with a tall water spout.
When he came back, he was bleeding, speared by sea urchins in the left calf and the right palm. The embedded spines looked like black crystal shards under the pale skin.
Henry spent much of his time “defending democracy against the forces of technocratic elitism” in the academy and elsewhere, and so accused Poseidon, enemy of the Demos, of directing the urchins in their attack. He wondered out loud if the spines were toxic. In a few days they slithered out, biologically, in the shower.
We ate grilled octopus in a restaurant by the sea, watching a sailor with a blue, unshaven chin, his flesh scrawny, turn fish on a grill. To serve it, he took the flesh from the bones as if he were performing an anatomical demonstration, cutting the head and tail from the body, detaching the grey-white flesh from the skeleton with the point of a knife, holding it down with a fork, without applying force, without ever having to repeat the same gesture, without seeming to be accomplishing a difficult or unaccustomed task.
We took the bus back to Athens as the sun set through Apollo’s temple in a shimmer of sacredness. The swift evening seabreeze plucked plaintive melodies from the stone columns as the bus wretched and clattered its way back through the hills.
Another day buying things in Athens’ Central Market and the merchandise of the sea was set out in crates of ice and looked like a mosaic. Fish-skin shimmered with petrol-caught-in-light colours. Greek men, marketplace giants, stood around shucking shells, periodically rolling leathery tobacco hairs into filterless cigarettes. One wiped off a long-bladed knife with a cloth dunked into a bucket of water full of bits of his trade: whiplike antenna, claws, pleopods, fish eyes, thin silvery ribs, and chitin.
From there we walked to the Theatre of Dionysus, flashed our blue student cards to the uniformed entry personnel, and sat in the favoured seats around the stage for a while, the ones with the stone backs.
The route to the Acropolis is through the trees and up polished marble steps, busy with tourists processing like cows through the impassive Propylaea. The Parthenon stood sultry in the sun.
It began to rain. More freak summer rain. The wind flapped drizzle at us with a Welsh determination. Henry drove his hand through his sopping hair. It wetted his orange T-shirt. From up there, looking down, the ancient bits of Athens stood out among the rest of the concrete cityscape, suffused into the fabric of modernity like wine spilled into a rug.
“I can’t make it cohere,” Henry said.
He stood up when he worked, to help his back, resting his computer on a library windowsill or one of his shelves at home, typing out a paper about Protagoras as a democratic theorist.
On the steps down into the Metro an old woman fell and hit her head. She started to bleed, her crown forming a scarlet ragù of hair and blood. The escalator took us away from her as men from the café over the road stopped drinking and came over to help.
Henry heated up the water on the stove for tea. He mixed it steaming into the leaves in the pot, and brought two cups out to the terrace. We put our feet up on the railing and smoked. A pair of lacy knickers were drying on the line strung up from the balcony below. There was a coral-coloured lamp on in the adjoining room.
He took us to his usual goodbye restaurant, on a square in Petralona, with trees now heavy and bowing with ripeness.
It was the last day, and we were drinking coffee with our suitcases beside us. The weekly market held on Odos Dinokratous had finished, and a woman dressed all in black with hair the colour of grit-laced snowslush walked by, laden with blue plastic bags full of tomatoes. She took her haul home to her hot, sun-bright kitchen and skinned and pulped the tomatoes into a red and sloppy mash, cooking it with garlic and cinnamon, all spiked with dry oregano at the end. A bush of Greek basil with leaves like tiny ivy grew tall and wild in a terracotta pot by the doorway to keep the mosquitos out. Her sons and daughters and grandchildren had all watered the plant at some point in their lives. Most of them were sacrificed now, to politics or work or bad partners or drugs or the Crash, or the Crash plus any of them, or the Crash plus all of them. Whenever her husband walks past the plant he gently bruises a few of its leaves and takes the spicy petrichor scent of the crushed oils onto his fingers and rubs it into his beard and the brown, oaky skin beneath the adorable blue shadows of his eyes.
The plane took off, circled over an Aegean islet, and set off on its plotted course over Germany and eventually to Heathrow.
Then the bad message: electricity and signals carrying postcards printed by thumbs.
My mother said, “if she still wanted to see you she would have called.”
A bit of pain, moths in the stomach, cramps, a snuffled sneeze and tears in the night, every night, then nothing much at all.
I ordered a cocktail at a bar in Soho, a couple of days before my next flight. The bar got busy. A little dry fungal mould crumbled off ancient radiator piping and onto my sleeve.
Charming really, how she had behaved. Oh well. Someone else now drowned in that lash-wide stare. She, like everyone, was a palimpsest of love. There would be others: a tradition.
The waiter brought some commiseration olives, or I ordered them, or they were there when I sat down. They were soaked in oil, slickly shining. Bottle green, but some were lighter, maybe lime or light-pear in colour.
The image of a girl dancing, or a dancing girl, appeared in their globular oleaginous sparkle, like the reflection of something in an eyeball, or in the lens of a camera, all small and stretched out with parts and hips magnified as she danced past the DJ decks with the cover sleeve of a Brazilian dancehall record propped up at the front so everyone could see what was being played and look it up later at home. She had a black dress on, and it melted into the colour of the olive. I watched her shimmy back past the decks with a drink and her own bowl of olives with toothpicks toothy-white like porcupine quills.
There was a spot of rotating light projected onto a white sheet behind the DJ. In the spot, blobs of purple and pink elided and merged into one another, distended and separated again, reclaiming their colour. I focused on the spot for a while, then checked back in on my olives. Yes, it was there, the spot greasily shown in the tiny cinema screen of an olive, spinning, taking the world in and feeding it back to me, containing the colourful essence of whatever was shown, the form, whatever that was, but morphed and warped and remade and refashioned. Then it exploded. It got really good. The sights changed as I flicked my eyes across the screens. There was a huge mass of blonde curly hair, almost autonomous, mixing with the pink and purple light to create a symbiosis of bright genital colour and shifting shape. On each of my olives the spectacle played itself out at a different angle, in different hues and tones. Soft, barely-clothed legs gyrated in anxiety or excitement, eight of them, repeated, arachnid. Wavelets in a tall glass. The transmission of a sex act or a handshake. Tailored suits bent out of shape by the barrelled cinematography. A phantom image of a gore-red shirt spliced with the colour of an especially dark olive. Shapes, elbows, renegade things, the arrant thieving of kisses, all gumming to a halt, restarting again when I shifted position: composite pictures of change and chaos. I felt myself slipping into the simulacra. What a wonderful theatre of spectrality! How lucky to be a wonder-wounded viewer of these scenes!
But the lights failed, went out, and the haruspicy ended. The bowl fell, and my sluttish liver stand-ins rolled away.
I was back in Greece for another summer, digging at an acropolis on an island.
An Englishman stood next to me, the head of the excavation, his face a perfect pizza of sunburn. Burst blisters peeled with all the loose stringiness of mozzarella. Red pepperoni circles blotched his face. He had been up drinking the night before. Bags the shape and colour of grey-brown anchovies hung under his eyes, the whites orbs of tabasco. He had furred capery teeth until he brushed and rinsed and spat out the white spume mixed with sapphire Listerine onto the earth of the excavation. He turned to me and grunted, taking a swig from a bottle of beer — Mythos, I think — and scratched his ruined face.
“Another season,” he said.
“Yes, another season,” I said.
He mixed a drink, slicing through the cucumber like a wrist, and drank it looking out over the island and the black-gold sea cut open by purple waves.
I thought of her then, a book flattened out in her lap, reading a line: “Failed form is hectic with loveliness, and compels us longer…” Something lands on the table. She swats it away, and precipitates the cat or bird-like creature from its perch and into the darkness below, into a crevice or a cleft.
Red sunlight on my closed eyelids brought me back to Greece. The sea’s swell filled up caesurae and lacunae in a great throb. “Life doesn’t want to be healed.” She read the line over again, “life doesn’t want to be healed.”
During the course of the dig we found a coin, and some low, buried stone walls. There wasn’t much else that year, apart from the potsherds the undergraduates dug up, pawing through dirt. One sherd had a black figure painted on it, but only one.
As the sun set, and I opened a bottle of wine, a tiny owl settled in the tree next to me. It swallowed the dragonfly in its mouth, and boomed its radar screech into the unobstructed sky.
The second part of the loosely plotted series We Other Greeks can be found here.
For quotations I gratefully acknowledge: Hannah Sullivan, Jacques Derrida, Christopher Isherwood, Ezra Pound, Jacques Lacan, and Attic Inscriptions Online.
Medieval Rendering of Socrates and Plato, c. 1250
Detail of marble portrait bust
Pericles wearing a helmet pushed back on his head
A Roman copy of an earlier Greek original
Find spot: Tivoli
British Museum: 1805,0703.91