The House on Paradise Street
1 A polite stranger MAUD
The day Nikitas died, his aunt came to speak to me in the evening. I was lying alone in my room as a muffled orange twilight gave way to darkness. The sounds of the Athenian night were familiar: neighbourhood dogs; mopeds whining up the hill; and the hum of traffic. Alexandra sat taut and upright on my rumpled bed, her tailored mourning clothes giving her the incongruous look of a raven landed in a laundry basket. I lay there, breathing in the naphthalene, watching her make automatic smoothing movements on the sheets. Her hand was speckled with age spots and a gold wedding ring held her husband’s looser band in place. Now I was a widow too.
Alexandra took a breath before she spoke.
“There’s something you need to do. You should contact your mother-in-law.” I looked at her blankly, not understanding. Petherá: the very word sounded foreign, never used in relation to me before.
“Nikitas’ mother. Antigone. She should learn what happened.” Her speech emerged awkwardly, staccato. Aunt Alexandra normally succeeded in ignoring the existence of her younger sister, though occasionally, if she was particularly annoyed or upset by Nikitas, she would compare him to his mother.
“The apple falls under the apple tree. You can never get away from that.” Too much time had gone by to speak of Antigone casually; it was almost sixty years since she had left. And she had never returned. Fixed in time as the young woman who had walked away and didn’t look back, she had become in her absence the family’s black hole, sucking emotions inwards and giving nothing back. The knowledge that she was still alive was worse than if she had died. It implied the continuation of insult and rejection.
When I first knew Nikitas, I was intrigued by the drama of his infancy. He showed me a framed photograph of his mother as a young woman. Taken from a low camera angle, the picture presents a heroine, with eyes gazing out to a victorious horizon. She is dressed in military uniform, but it is her face that is compelling: generous lips, resolutely straight eyebrows and long, dark hair falling unrestrained, like a contemporary teenager. There was undeniably a tragic grandeur in Antigone’s appearance, but also in the lack of compromise in her life; what could bring someone to abandon her young child and leave her country for ever? Initially, as an outsider, a foreigner, in this family, I appreciated the idea of Antigone the rebel. Later, however, especially after Tig was born, I became enough of an insider to change my opinion. There could be no excuse for this stubborn old woman who had never cared enough to come
back and see those she had left behind. Now that her son was dead, what could there be to say?
I imagine that many disastrous days start innocently enough, and the morning of October 29th 2008 was unremarkable. Later, trying to make sense of events, I looked for omens – some pattern or prediction. I tried to go over Nikitas’ last days and weeks and even wondered about the invasion of ants in the kitchen that morning – a thick jagged line of them squeezing through a crack in the door frame and proceeding vigorously around the sink and into the cupboards. Their doggedness in the face of my attempts to annihilate them with washing-up liquid was almost touching, stumbling over each other to continue the progression, like disciplined soldiers taking up the front line. As I washed their crumpled black corpses down the sink, I thought about Nikitas, but I was not worried that he had failed to come home the night before.
When I had married Nikitas fifteen years earlier, I had known that I could not press him into a conventional home life, and in truth, our system usually suited me too. His job gave him the excuse to work unusual hours, and frequently, after writing late for a deadline or following a long evening out with friends, he would bed down at his “office” – a little pied-a-terre near Sophocles Street. Two ex-wives were only one of many indications that Nikitas’ talk of liberty was not an abstract notion.
“I am a Greek,” he’d announce as an explanation for needs that I, as an English person, could not be expected to have
or to understand. Most Greeks discuss freedom as a theoretical measuring stick for their nation’s history or for a person’s quality of life, but in Nikitas’ case, it was an urgent personal need. His desire to leave the house, to travel or to change his plans on impulse had the single-mindedness of the young child desperate to get out of the darkness and into the sunshine.
The previous day, October 28th, had been Nikitas’ birthday as well as being a public holiday and, as usual, he had eschewed the “arsehole parades” that took place around the city and the birthday cakes and celebrations we sometimes organised at home. He had long ago encouraged Tig to boycott the school parade, so she had a lie-in rather than dress up in a blue skirt and sensible shoes and march the streets with her school mates, clutching blue and white flags.
“‘No Day!’ That’s what we’re good at in Greece, so let’s say no, whether or not anyone listens,” Nikitas told her. “You should say no to fascist-style marching – after all, we’re celebrating our refusal to let a fascist Italian dictator invade our homeland in 1940. Not that it kept them away in the end.”
I think Nikitas left on his birthday morning without saying goodbye, though I can’t quite remember. Perhaps I just didn’t hear him calling. I’ve gone over it many times in my head since then. Perhaps he hugged me and I’ve just forgotten.
As I made toast and encouraged Tig to prepare for school, I didn’t contemplate calling Nikitas’ mobile phone. If he had been working late he would be sleeping and, anyway, he usually had it switched off, resenting the intrusion implied by being permanently available. Tig had the outraged yet somnolent look of a hibernating animal that has been woken up in midwinter, her long, almost black hair engulfing a pale face. She
took a few dainty bites and threw the rest into the bin; Greeks don’t eat breakfast – even those with foreign mothers.
Tig grabbed her school bag and I forgot to check if my mobile was in my jacket pocket. We left the back way, out of the kitchen door and down the wrought iron spiral staircase at the rear of the building. The sky was filled with a sickly yellow haze and a humid wind twisted the air. This disconcerting southerly appears from time to time, carrying Saharan sand all the way across the Mediterranean, depositing it throughout the centre of Athens as a layer of rusty powder. Our hands picked up the African dust on the handrail and the leaves on the lemon tree were tinted terracotta. The lemon tree dominates our yard. It was planted by Aunt Alexandra’s father in the 1920s, when he built the house, and it now reaches to our first floor windows, the fruit ripening almost all year round. In the spring, the building is flooded with the blossom’s intoxicating scent. The fire escape descends to the courtyard at the back of the house, alongside – almost inside – the tree, so you can reach out to pick a lemon or take a leaf to crush and sniff the citrus tang. Tig sometimes climbs onto the sturdy central branches and sits there, hiding. Aunt Alexandra makes a syrupy preserve from the lemon peel, offering it as a “spoon sweet” to visitors. Chryssa paints its trunk with lime-wash in springtime, to prevent disease and infestation. I have loved this tree since I first visited Paradise Street and in optimistic moments see it as a common point of reference for the disjointed family that I married into. Our totem.
The courtyard’s familiar smell of cat piss and jasmine was overlaid with brewing coffee from Alexandra’s ground floor apartment. Through the green grille on the kitchen window,
Chryssa was visible, stirring a pot of Greek coffee on a hissing camper-gas that she preferred to the electric cooker. She spotted us and waved, calling out through the window to Tig.
“Off to school, my Angel? May the Virgin go with you! Good progress!” She looked like a kindly country witch, in a worn, print dress, her grey hair twisted into a bun. Tig said good morning and waved back, more polite with Chryssa than with me or Nikitas, who were bearing the increasing brunt of adolescent wrath. I could see Chryssa’s capable, knobbly hands pouring the coffee (“sweet and heavy”, made in the traditional way) from the bríki into a cup and saucer. It would soon be carried through to Aunt Alexandra, with some cinnamon biscuits from the bakery. The two old women had the easy, unspoken companionship of people who take each other for granted, and while their official status was mistress and maid, decades of shared life had blurred the boundaries.
I loved being part of these routines – so regular, we could time ourselves in the morning by what stage the coffee was at, and whether Kyria Lambakis, our neighbour, was just leaving for her hairdresser’s down the road (“Welcome to the girls! Good day to you both!”). It pleased me that Tig was rooted somewhere, in contrast to my childhood, with my absent parents and insecurities. If Nikitas yearned for freedom and found it within the confines of marriage, then I longed for familiarity and found it in a foreign culture. Strange how the same marriage can offer such different satisfactions to each participant.
The looming flank of Hymettus was covered with thick, phlegm-coloured clouds through which the sun emitted the sickly glow of a spotlight in a smoky room. As Tig and I walked up the hill to Athens’ Thirteenth Secondary School, we were
nagged and buffeted by the warm wind. Tig brushed away the tangles of dark hair that whipped across her face, obscuring large eyes smudged black with yesterday’s liner and accumulated tiredness – going to bed on time had been abandoned years ago. She was neither child nor woman, but something fleeting, perfect and in-between and she slipped between confident worldliness and youthful vulnerability. The wound from a recent eyebrow piercing added a touch of drama; she was forbidden from wearing the small silver bolt at school and its daily removal was still a delicate manoeuvre. She had not asked permission for this “mutilation”, as Nikitas described it, and he had tried unsuccessfully to hide his shock.
“I thought you approved of individual expression and questioning the system,” Tig said, quoting him back as a challenge to counter disapproval.
“Nobody else’s mother takes them to school, you know.” Tig was wired up to an I-pod, whose tinny, pounding bass was just audible above the wind’s bluster.
“I’m only coming for the walk. I know you can look after yourself.”
Tig looked at me coolly and raised a disbelieving eyebrow. Before we reached the school gates she switched from English to Greek to say goodbye. I saw her notice and then not look at Kimon, a boy she likes but is too shy to speak to. She hurried away into the yard. I didn’t stay and watch as I used to, waiting for the head teacher to make the call for prayers, and observing pupils from Albania, Bulgaria, Pakistan, China and the Philippines line up with everyone else to chant their way through Our Father, and cross themselves along with the Orthodox.
“Soon there won’t be any ‘little Greeks’ in the school and they’ll be teaching in Albanian,” Aunt Alexandra had commented recently.
Nikitas’ comment was acerbic: “She’d prefer things back to the good old days of the Colonels, with ‘Hellas for Christian Hellenes’.”
I had only just arrived home when I heard three brisk knocks on the door – Aunt Alexandra’s code when she came up from her apartment on the ground floor. She usually called out: “It’s me!”
“Don’t open the door if you don’t know who it is,” she warned. “Athens has changed. There are so many foreigners now.” I am very fond of Aunt Alexandra. She welcomed me into her family with generosity and despite the tensions between her and Nikitas, she has been like a grandmother to Tig. But there are times when I am reluctant to invite her in. That morning I didn’t want to hear about her aches (“If you’re above ground, you’ll hurt”), or her fund-raising evening for her conservative New Democracy friends, or her latest gossip about Father Apostolos and his troubles. I was late with the last instalment of my research. This time it was a trawl through 1930s archives for a historian writing about Metaxas’ dictatorship. Being a freelance researcher is not always easy, though I’ve built up quite a network of British and American academics who don’t speak Greek or don’t have the time and cunning to deal with the Greek civil servants who guard the material. I had planned on sending off the packet of photocopies and translations to Professor Stotter before the post office shut at 2pm. In truth though, the main reason I didn’t want to open the door for Alexandra was that I didn’t want her to notice that Nikitas
had not come home. It left me feeling queasy when she drew me into an implied female conspiracy, where Nikitas was the “naughty boy” and I was conscripted into the ranks of sensible female stalwarts.
There was another knock, louder this time. I pictured her standing on the landing outside our door, her bluish, candy-floss hair moulded into a lacquered crash-helmet, the perfect painted fingernails and heels mildly skittish for an eighty-five-year-old. She would say:
“Good morning Maud”, or more likely, she would use a diminutive for my name, and then add the possessive pronoun:
Kali sou méra, Mondouli mou – “A good morning to you, my little Maud.” I was diminished then possessed, all in the name of affection and intimacy. Before opening the door, I picked up some papers to make myself look busy and back up my excuse. Alexandra looked awful and it was clear something was wrong. Her voice came out high-pitched. The police had rung her after failing to find me, she explained. Nikitas had been in a car crash on the coast road early this morning. Somewhere near Varkiza. She didn’t know the details, but he was seriously injured. I was to go immediately to the Asklipieio Hospital in Voula. She had already rung Orestes in his studio upstairs and he was coming down.
My twenty-five-year-old stepson came jogging chaotically down the steps from the roof terrace.
“What the fuck happened? What’s Babas gone and done?” Orestes looked bewildered, his features swollen from sleep, and he tugged at his crumpled T-shirt, as if attempting to bring some order in the face of disaster. Since I first met him fifteen
years ago as a shy little boy, he had grown into an alluring, long-limbed man, whose dark hair reached his shoulders. “A real palikári,” as Chryssa said, “strong and tall as a cypress.” His gait was languid and almost shambolic, belying the lava of anger that lurked below the surface. He was normally unshaven, wearing the baggy, low-slung clothes favoured by his fellow students, but he still reminded me of the sweet ten-year-old boy who shook my hand and made us laugh the first time we were introduced.
“I’ll take you to the hospital on my bike – that would be quickest.” Orestes’ spirits rose somewhat at the thought of his beloved motorbike, which he rode with verve, roaring and weaving through the city’s traffic.
“No, we’ll call a cab,” I said, picking up the phone to dial and observing his features fall. The taxi sped down Syngrou Avenue towards the sallow sea and then south along the coast road. Orestes rolled a cigarette, opened his window and puffed the smoke out in an exaggerated sigh. His legs juddered nervously. I experienced a bizarre clarity of vision in my fear, as though I were seeing things for the first time: the pale lines in the dusty roadside oleander leaves, the mauve tint of an old woman’s lips boarding the seaside tram at Faliro. I recognised adrenaline tingling through my skin; cold feet; an obstacle in the throat. The wind had produced a strange fog that drained the colour from everything, so you could hardly tell where the sea ended and the sky began, as though you might get lost in the greyness.
At the turning for the hospital we waited at some traffic lights where a slim tabby cat lay folded at an acrobatic angle in the gutter. Pink 1930s buildings and ornamental flowerbeds
gave the hospital a seaside holiday atmosphere and the salty air was scented with pine and eucalyptus. At a window marked Enquiries, a garish blonde woman with purple nails was peeling an apple. I bent down to speak through the opened slot but the words came out curdled, as if I had forgotten my Greek.
“My husband, Nikitas Perifanis . . .” I paused, recognising how this language that had such a deep hold on me, and which I had started learning twenty years ago, could still retreat in moments of stress or exhaustion. It was not enough to be devoted to it, to read poetry, to dream in it, sing in it, fight in it and make love in it; Greek would never be my mother-tongue. She could become a faithless deserter in times of need.
We were sent to the Ward Sister’s office, told to wait for the doctor, and stood hunched and trembling outside it by a row of patients drooped on orange plastic chairs. A medic in jeans and white coat appeared and led us a little way along the corridor, squeezing himself up against the wall in an attempt at privacy. He might have been only a few years older than Orestes, though it was obvious that he had already seen more ugliness and pain. His gaze of sympathy tempered by exhaustion was enough for me to grasp the gist of his announcement before he spoke.
“The news is not good.” A distant buzzing sound of live wires touching. My body felt hollowed out then so heavy that my knees almost gave way.
Nikitas’ car left the road at some point in the night. It rolled onto the rocks at the Limanakia – the Little Harbours – near Varkiza. A swimmer spotted the wreck from the sea in the morning. My husband was already dead. No other cars were involved, but there would have to be an enquiry, an autopsy.
The facts appeared quite simple, he said, but we should see the local police to give a statement. Orestes gripped my forearm too tightly, like a child who doesn’t want to be left at the nursery. His skin was so white it was almost blue.
I had often imagined Nikitas’ death; he was twenty years older and I knew the odds. But I had used his seniority like a shield as he took on the battles of age ahead of me. When I reached forty a couple of years earlier, it seemed gratifyingly youthful compared with his sixty. Although Nikitas took it for granted that I’d be the one left behind and enjoyed teasing me with “when I’m gone. . .”, he did not appear old. I noticed the signs that his body was ageing (his solid torso slightly softer, his chest hair sprouting white), but his presence was as powerful and vigorous as it had been when we first met. And if Tig was sometimes embarrassed that people assumed he was her grandfather, he was not; he’d swing her up in the air, making her squeal.
“Don’t care what others think – they’re usually wrong.”
I signed several pieces of paper without understanding what they were and was given the contact details of the police who were dealing with the case. I could not think of any reason why Nikitas would have been driving down that way at night. A man who might have been a nurse took us to the hospital’s small morgue. He didn’t speak, but his movements were deft as he pulled a lever down to open one of several metal doors and then slid out a long shelf. He peeled back a coarse white sheet and retreated discreetly. The dead man didn’t look like Nikitas. It wasn’t just the dark bruises on his face, but more the stillness. Nikitas was constantly moving. Even asleep, he sighed, rolled and twitched, letting out small yelping noises
like a dog dreaming. When awake, his facial expressions were exaggerated, his gestures more expansive and voice louder or dramatically quieter than other people’s. He ate more, drank more, embraced us all with hugs that expressed affection, but that also hinted at the potentially threatening strength of a bear. The only time he became still was when he was very angry; then he was the bear before the chase. Now he looked like a polite stranger. I put my hand on his chest until Orestes pulled at me.
“Can we leave? It stinks here.”
We fled, leaving the nurse and the pungent smell of public swimming pools and school science labs. I said, “Thank you.” I wasn’t brought up in England for nothing.
Orestes strode ahead, out of the hospital doors and over to some bushes where he threw up. I put one hand on his back and the other on his forehead, as I did with Tig when she was sick. When he had finished, I led him slowly over to a bench under a canopy of jasmine by the hospital chapel. Nearby, two young nurses chatted as they ate cheese pies from paper bags. Pigeons danced at their feet, darting at the falling flakes.