Thursday 24 September 2020

Chapter 6 - London, Saturday 1 September, 1990

So, John, your day ended with a sunset - and mine began with a sunrise.  I surprised myself by sleeping very deeply that night on the train - a stone-like, dreamless sleep.  I awoke early - and suddenly felt very excited.  Perhaps I had caught some of your own mood of anticipation.

I went out into the corridor, and watched the scenery go by.  I couldn't see the Nile, but everywhere there were dark green palm trees visible against the lightening horizon.  The sky turned into a rosy haze, then, like some huge, monstrous eye, the sun wheeled over the horizon - your god Re.  As it rose it soon turned first yellow and then bright white, its low rays cutting through the foliage.  It was beautiful.

As was our hotel.  You are definitely good as a guide: the hotels you chose for us all had atmosphere - they felt real, and lived-in - not like the concrete chicken coops passing for hotels which look as if they are carefully disinfected after each occupant has left, their traces eradicated.  The Savoy felt like a big home, happy to bear the traces of successive visitors.

Its situation was stunning - a stone's throw from the Nile.  Its reception area big and dark, with the helpful men behind the desk, the array of dangling keys, spartan otherwise.  And that long corridor to the right - past little bare offices where middle-aged men sat smoking all day, apparently doing nothing, their desks empty except for a heavy black telephone and a few pieces of paper.  The corridor past the souvenir shop, past tall dark rooms for storing luggage and whatever, out to the sudden sunlight.  Although it would have been nice to have a view over the Nile as you wanted, I liked our room.  It was spacious and yet not anonymous.  It had character - though you'd probably say it simply had lots of things which didn't work.

Breakfast on the terrace.  Cold - but we did not care.  What can I say? - except that you put your finger on it exactly: how is it possible to really feel that you are beside the Nile, when less than a week ago you were doing the shopping in Huddersfield?  Surely the two worlds cannot be connected by one person?  Of course they can and are, but I wonder whether you need years of training to bring them together.  It certainly felt strange to me.

And then began two days of incredible sights - and incredibly exhausting ones.  But before I start getting carried away too much, I must try to make amends.  Because so far, this has all been about me - and you, a little.  I am being very self-centred: I've said so little about the other people in our group.  And in fairness to them - and to you, because they played an important role in what happened - I want to tell you something about them.

I wonder how much you really saw them - your comments have not been very kind, John.  Perhaps you'll say more, and more pleasant things, later.  But in your thoughts and comments above, you seem far more interested in your King Ramses - and in the battles of thousands of years ago, and in the stones even - than in your group.  Perhaps they're just a job to you, to be forgotten about as soon as they've gone.  But they're still people, not packages you're being paid to carry around Egypt.

Well, I think it has to be Alekko - Alexandros to you - partly because he's so wonderful, and partly because there are reasons why the others should be saved to later.

Could you describe Alekko (I'm sorry, I have to call him that, Alexandros sounds so serious - and that's one thing he'd hate)?  I'm sure you couldn't.  I sometimes wonder whether you ever actually see people - in the way that you really can see things - some of your descriptions are so beautiful.  Perhaps that's why you never take photographs of the places you visit: because there are always people there to spoil the effect.

Anyway, I shall describe Alekko for myself if for no one else - I have my snaps in front of me as I write: what memories they bring back.  He is indeterminate in age - or, better, ageless: sixty, seventy, perhaps even eighty.  In short, he has reached a time in his life when years and age are irrelevant.  He is of medium height, a happy sort of shape, dressed in slightly baggy trousers, and always wearing a tie, a pullover and a dark jacket - informally smart, you could call it.  The heat never seemed to worry him, even dressed like this.  His roundish face is topped by thick grey hair, he has a bristly moustache and the brightest of black boot-button eyes you ever did see.  And yet no words can capture his laugh or the twinkle in those eyes.  I suppose I could sum him up by saying he is my vision of a perfect uncle.  No, he is more than that: if I am being honest, I would love to have had him for a father.

Is this a terrible thing to say, to want someone else to have been your father?  I do love Dad, but, well, it has been difficult sometimes.  He has always been so distant, so silent.  As a child I was always very afraid of him - he seemed so tall and stern.  And my mother was terrified of his quiet displeasure.  My poor mother.  I can remember so many times around the dinner table when not a word was said, just the clink of cutlery on plates, my mother and I staring at our food all the time, hardly daring to breathe.  Another thing: I was not allowed into our living room until I was ten and judged 'old enough'.  And yet he never once lost his temper, raised his voice - certainly not his hand.  Perhaps it would have been better if he had.  Even now, we never seem to have much to say - which may be my fault, but it is still hard.

But Alekko - what a father he would have made.  More childlike than any child, constantly laughing and joking, constantly talking and telling amazing stories.  I could listen to him forever.  I certainly found it hard to tear myself away from him at times - even to the point of forgetting where I was, so wrapped up was I in his stories, in his world, his life.  You will be shocked, John, that I missed such an opportunity to see the wonderful things around me.  I did see them, it is just that sometimes the siren call of Alekko's voice dragged me away.  I cannot believe that was so bad.

I am so annoyed with myself that I wasted those early days of our trip - I barely exchanged a word with him - even though I could see him chattering away to the others who listened to him as if entranced.  Stupidly, I felt shy to begin with, just a hanger-on tailing around after my husband, with no real right to be there, or to take part in the conversations.  So the first time I really talked with him was that day in Luxor.  The glorious morning lifted my spirits, I felt strangely re-born - whatever the reason, I was ready and able to talk to him.

I remember it was after breakfast, when we were strolling gently along the corniche towards the temple.  We were walking beside the Nile, and Alekko could barely take his eyes of the water, smiling to himself and shaking his head.  I walked alongside him.

"Is it not wonderful, this water?" he asked.

"It is certainly a beautiful sight - it looks so majestic."  I answered.

"But more, I mean the water, any water - is it not wonderful?" he asked with passion.

"Well, I suppose so, I've never really thought about it.  The rain in England is not so wonderful when you haven't got an umbrella."

"Ach, that is not water, that is rain.  I mean the big waters - like the rivers, the lakes, the seas.  You know, they have saved my life."

"Really?  How?"

"Well, when I was a boy - ah!, but lady," - he called all the women 'lady', but from him it did not sound quaint or wrong, just intriguingly foreign and gallant - "you must not begin me on this topic.  I am an old knitting - if you pull any thread it will all come and cannot stop itself."

"Alexandros - "

"Please, call me Alekko - the only people to use that other name are people who want to correct me or order me - please, Alekko is for friends," he said with some heat.

"Very well, Alekko - I would love to hear your story - if it won't tire you too much."

"Oh, lady, I am old - but I am not that old," and he laughed uproariously.

"So," he said, fixing his eye on the horizon as if trying to see where he came from, where to begin.

"You must know, then, that I am from Albania.  You smile - yes, the world smiles at poor Albania.  It is the joke of the world.  And yet I do not mind - for I am not Albanian.  How can this be?  Well, we have a saying in that country 'a man is not always where his boots are': yes, I was born in Albania, but I am not Albanian.  My name - Alexandros Papadakis - is not Albanian, as you hear.  Yes, I am Greek, and proud to the bone of it.  But it was my misfortune to be born in Albania.

Why misfortune, for my country is beautiful?  Because I was born a few miles in the wrong place.  I was born in a small village near Gjirokaster of the terrible castle," - I think this is what he said: it's what I found in the atlas - "a few miles from the crossing with Greece.  My family had been shepherds in the hills for centuries.  What did we know or care of the kings and their maps?  We raised sheep and that was enough.

But one day, it seems, we are on the wrong side of the map.  The Albanians then had a bad king - Zog, he was called, a good name for a bad king.  And there was a war coming or a revolution, I do not know.  But I was a young man - fifteen or sixteen - and they wanted to make me a soldier.  Me, Alekko Papadakis - to kill or be killed.  No thank you, I say to myself.  This is not me.  So, I think, I will escape.  But there are many soldiers guarding the hills and lands touching Greece.  I cannot go this way.  What can I do?

Well then, for years we would go down to fields near the sea with our flocks.  And there I would look across and see an island - it was Corfu, another country, my beloved Greece that I had never seen.  For me it was heaven - that was what heaven looked like, misty green hills across the sea.

So, one morning when they would make me a soldier, I went to my parents, and kissed them goodbye and wept.  But they knew I had to go.  I went down to the sea.  I looked out across to the island.  I was young, I was strong, I was foolish.  I had some clothes wrapped in a cloak, that was all.  I bound the cloak to me.  I ran to the sea, and I swam.  I swam and swam, and though it was night now, and cold, I swam because I was swimming to heaven.  I do not know how many hours, or how many boats I waited to pass, but I know that God was with me, for I swam to the island, I swam to heaven.

It was dawn when I came up on a beach.  I was cold and tired, but I must not rest.  Zog's men would be for me, I had to get away, keep on running.  I went inland, went up to the hills.  For there I would find shepherds, and I did.  And I told them why I was cold and hungry.  For you must know that Greek is the language of my heart, if the Albanians made me speak their tongue on the street.  The shepherds were good men.  They made me sit by their fires, eat their bread, drink their wine.  I rested a while, and then moved on down the island, down through the mountains, always with the shepherds who were good men and my friends.

But still I was not content, I wanted to be further from that bad Albania.  So I went down to the harbour.  There were fishermen there.  I talked to them, I told them about my life, and they helped me too.  They would take me to the next island, small, where Zog and his men could not find me.  And so they did, leaving me in a small harbour, there a place I will never forget for my life, a place that makes me young to think of it, where it all began.  But I have said enough, we must look at the church."

I wanted to ask him more, but by now we had arrived at the Luxor temple, and you were telling us about Ramses (again), about rituals and boats and cartouches and sacrificial bulls.  It was all interesting, and it was certainly amazing that we - you - knew so much about a time so long ago.  But it suddenly felt very dry and dead.  I was intensely conscious of Alekko standing there, listening humbly, this dear old man who had had such an incredible youth - and, I already suspected, had experienced much, much more in his long life.  I wanted to ask him a hundred questions, but I felt that it would be selfish of me to distract him from what he presumably came here for, to learn about Ancient Egypt - knowledge you were clearly well-equipped to supply.

I suddenly felt with him as I had felt with you when we started going out together.  Do you remember how we used to sit in the café - and would you believe it, do you remember what it was called?  El Greco - now there's a coincidence, don't you think?  Anyway, I was totally enraptured as you held forth on some subject or other - I'd never known anyone who could talk like you - or who knew so much as you did.  And now I felt the same way about Alekko.  Except that it was of course different - not just in exactly how I felt about him, but also in what he was telling me.  You spoke of books - hundreds of them, thousands perhaps; Alekko speaks of just one book, so to speak: his life.

So I was like an excited schoolgirl again, waiting for an opportunity to talk to Alekko.  On the way back from the temple to the hotel he was talking to you, asking questions about the things we had seen.  So it was over lunch that I at last managed to speak to him again.

"What a magnificent church," he said like a child with a new toy.  "What people these Egyptians were - we are nothing, are we not?  And your John, he knows so much, no?"

"He does indeed," I agreed.  "But Alekko, do you mind if I ask you a question about what you said this morning?"

"Lady, please, ask away, whatever you like.  But, I beg of you, if I am a silly old man, talking and talking, tell me that I should stop."  I promised, but knew that would never happen.  "What is it that you wish to know?"

"You said you went to a small island, to a small harbour there...."

"Yes, it was a place - you have never heard of it - called Longgos, on the island of Paxos - may its name be ever blessed in my memory."

"You said that it was 'where it all began': may I ask what began?"  I felt that I might be obtruding on some deeply private area, but I also felt driven to ask.

"Ah, what could 'it' be but life itself, that is to say, love itself?"  He paused, with a gentle smile playing across his features.  I paused too, not wanting to probe further in case it were painful for him.  But he began again, unprompted.

"Yes, that beautiful place - if Corfu was heaven to my poor Albania, then Paxos was Corfu's heaven, and Longgos, well, heaven's heaven.  Words cannot say it.

I arrived there, then, early one spring morning, with the fishermen after their night's work.  As they pulled away, the sun was rising out to sea.  Dawn spread its rosy fingers over the sky and the white houses blushed.  Longgos is a tiny port, a tiny fishermen's village, very quiet, very tidy, a shop for this, a shop for that, very beautiful.  As I walked from the small quay, I could hear sounds from the bakery.  As I passed I could smell the warm wet smell of the bread.  I longed for some bread, but I had no money.  But as I always have, I trusted in God, and in men - and in women.  I decided to ask for some bread, and to give my work as money.

I went in.  The smell of fresh-baked bread hit me like the scent of a thousand flowers.  It was necessary that I closed my eyes and smelt.  It was a moment before I won myself again and could speak.  I opened my eyes, and saw before me an angel, smiling a tiny smile at me.

'It is a good smell, no?' the angel said.

'It is the best I have smelt ever,' I said, unable to take my eyes off her, my heart beating loudly.  'But it makes me sad.'

'Our bread makes you sad?  But how?' she said.

'Because I have no money and can buy no bread.'

She wiped her hands on her big apron, took a loaf, and handed it to me.

'Take it,' she said, 'it is right that anyone who loves bread as you do must have it.'

'But there is an old saying 'bread must be earned before it can be eaten' - I must pay you some way.'  I said.

'This is not a saying that I know.  Here, if you are given a gift of bread you may eat.  Where is this a saying?'

I told her about across the water.  She asked how I had got here, what I was doing, and the rest.  I told her the truth as I have told you.

'But what will become of you?' she said with concern.

'God has looked after me - did he not lead me here?'  I smiled and she smiled back, a bigger smile now.

And what a smile, like the sun on the water in the harbour.  But I see I am become old and forgetful - how could I not describe my Nafsika, who is before my eyes every day of my life?  Well then, she was of medium height - like you, lady - her hair was of the blackest - thick and long and curled like claws of a beautiful dragon, her eyes still blacker, pools of black water you could fall into and drown happily.  Her body - her body, O my good God - what a body she had, young and firm and strong and soft.  But I am losing my story.

'My father and brothers are away in Gaios' - it was the main town of the island - she said, 'but will return later today.  There is no work here that I can give you.  But I will help you.'  And that is what she did, the angel.

She told me to come back to her later that morning when she had sold her bread.  She would show me an old house, half ruined, up in the hills, where I could stay.   And that is where I lived, for three months of heaven."

Alekko paused, as if that were the end of his story - or perhaps just to make me ask him to go on.

"Yes?" I said rather rudely, "then what happened?"  I was shameless.

"But lady, what could we do but fall in love?  She was 17, as beautiful as life itself.  I was now 16, and well, young and handsome enough - I know, I know, it is hard to think now, but there were ladies once who found me good enough, ai, but yes....  We saw each other every day, soon every night too.  We walked in the cool pine forests, the smell deep on the air, we walked through the shivering olive trees with their growing fruit.  At night we walked out along tiny beaches, with no one else, listening to the sea whispering at us.  We watched the stars above, and the moon growing great and small.  We fell in love - how could we not?  We were young, the world was young for us, we were in paradise.  We wanted nothing more.  Would that it could have been always so...."

"What happened, Alekko, did something bad happen...?"  My mind was racing ahead, constructing wild romantic stories around this man's life, this man who I hardly knew, but who already seemed so real to me.

"Bad?  Was it bad?  I do not...I cannot say.  Perhaps what happened was bad because I am bad, but it was also good.  Why say more?  After a little time, one night when we lay together, my beautiful Nafsika burst into tears, and cried and cried and could not stop crying.  I tried everything I could to comfort her, but could not.  'What is it my dove?' I asked.  At first she would not - could not - say.  But at last, with great sobs she told me that she was with child.

I could not grasp this.  It was not part of this world that we had, it was not something that we had intended.  But we were young, foolish, we were happy - until then.  And even after then, we put it from our minds for a day, a week, a month, and lived together as before.  But it was not as before, it had changed.  And the time would come when all this would be faced.  But I did not know what to do.  I was so young, so foolish.  What did I know of children, of being a father?  What would happen?

And of course it happened.  I was sitting in my house, doing nothing, thinking about my lovely angel, when suddenly the door flew open and there she was.  As she stood there I could see that she was beginning to grow slightly.  

'You must flee!' she said breathless.  

'Never!  I will never leave you.'

'You must,' she said.  'My father knows everything - except where you are.  I told him you lived over the hill.  He is there now with my brothers.  They are mad with anger.  They will kill you if they find you.  You must flee.'

I felt a cold take my heart.  Why must it be like this?  Why must life lead to death?  I had seen this so often across the water, men mad with anger, hurting and killing, Zog's men in their poor ugliness.  But why here, in this heaven?

'Why are you standing there?' she was shaking with fear and sadness, crying and screaming at me.  'You must leave now, I beg of you, by your love for me - for our child - '

'But what will come of you, of - ' The words die in my mouth.  I felt like a fool, a child too.  

'I will look after it.  My father will not harm me or it.  He loves me but his love blinds him - his love and his stupid honour.  But he will harm you, I know it.  Please, promise me that you will leave and never return.'  She was imploring me on her knees.  Why?  Why was all this coming to us?  What had we done that we would now both suffer - me alone without her, her here with her father's anger?  I knew so little of this world - I was not ready for heaven.  I saw she had reason.

'I will go.'  I said, holding her to me.  But she pushed me off, pushed me out of the house. 

'Go, go, quickly, you must.'

And so for fear of hurting her, hurting our child, I went.  She pressed some money on me.  I refused, but again she screamed at my stupidity, my man's pride.  And she was right, right in all things.

And so I left her, left her.  I went to Gaios, found a stranger's ship - her father was known among the local fishermen - which was going back to the mainland Greece.  I was numb.  I did as she said, but I was numb.  I went."

Alekko stopped, finally now.  What could I say that would not be trivial?  It was so long ago - fifty years? - but for him it was eternally yesterday.

"Did you ever... hear from her, or go back?"

"No - how could I?  I could not write to her - my letters would have been destroyed, only made her father angrier.  She did not know where I was.  I could never go back, break her life again.  I had to go forever."

"Oh Alekko, I'm so sorry."

"Do not be - I am not.  It was perhaps the happiest time of my life.  I have loved her image ever since.  No one has taken what we had.  That is enough.  And my life has been good - much has happened that does not make them less, but more.  Do not be sad for me."

And I understood, or thought I did.  He had not wanted to leave, but had accepted leaving.  He had lived his life with these memories intact, while at the same time able to go on without being trapped in them.  Once again I had this urge to ask him to tell me more - I felt as if I had found a book with all the answers, and that would tell me all I needed to know.

I was wrong of course.  Alekko was just a man, but then he never claimed to be anything more.  He had his faults, as I found out, as he told me, but who has not?  Luckily, perhaps, during his retelling of these events, we had moved on from the hotel to Karnak.  He reached the end of his story, of his flight from paradise, as we arrived before that huge temple.  I think we were both glad that there was something outside us that we could look at, talk about.

But perhaps I'm wrong again.  I certainly needed that respite, but I think that I am underestimating the remarkable Mr Papadakis.  For me, his story had touched my heart, and left me shaken.  For him, though, this was something that had been with him for nearly all of his life.  It had lost its fire.  Perhaps he had a clarity of vision I lacked, a balance.  Perhaps, even, it was just a story for him, a beautiful one, no doubt, one that had been polished and polished in the re-telling - just like your notes, John, and just like all those inscriptions and histories - and as were all the others that he would relate to me in the next few days, and that I would devour just as hungrily as I had this one.

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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