Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Chapter 9 - London, September 22, 1990

Yes, John, it's strange that you slept so badly and I slept so well.  But after a while, I really wasn't aware of the band at all.  Instead, I just drifted off dreaming about gardens in Grenada, the Swiss twins, the island in the Venetian Lagoon....  And woke totally refreshed the next day.

But I was rather sad to be leaving Aswan.  As we sat at breakfast in the dining room, I realised how much I liked the place - it felt like some outpost of greenness and friendliness in the desert.  The town had a festive air about it, as if everyone were on holiday.  So packing our cases after breakfast, ready for our return in the evening, made me rather wistful.

Talking with Alekko soon shook me out of that.  He really is a remarkable man, who has led a remarkable life - and still has such an enthusiasm for it.  I admire that.  So many people that you meet seem burnt out, exhausted by things; but not Alekko, he's constantly on the look-out for new experiences, for meeting new people - especially the ladies.  He is irrepressible.

But I fear that I have made him sound rather superficial in my descriptions above.  That is far from the case.  In fact, as we waited at the airport, drinking our coffees in the glorious morning sun (well, Alekko and I were in the sun, you and some of the others stayed under the canopy) our conversation began to take a rather more serious turn - I don't know why, particularly.  Perhaps because of my initial mood.

"So, tell me, Alekko - if you don't mind - what have you learnt from all your adventures?"  - As you can see, John, that mood must have made me rather impertinent.

"Learnt, lady?  But life is not a lesson.  Life is only there, to be lived every minute of the hour.  Anyway, I am too stupid to learn from life - I make the same mistakes again and again, I love the same wrong woman, I stay too long, or not long enough, I say the wrong thing, or the right thing at the wrong hour.  No, I have learnt little - but lived much."

"Well I think you're wise, even if you don't realise it."

"Ah!, you are too kind.  If I am wise, I am like our philosopher, who was a wise man because he knew he knew only a little.  I know that much."

"So, Alekko, you cannot tell me the Laws of Love, then?" I said, teasing.

"Lady, lady, would that I could.  All my life I am looking and looking to understand what this thing called love is, but every time it is different, or I cannot remember exactly what it was, only what it is.  It is very difficult.  Perhaps when I am very old I will know - and then it will be too late," he said laughing.

"But Alekko, is there nothing you can tell me, no rules or secrets?"

"Ah!, of course I have my secrets, but these are not laws, they are helps, that is all."

"And what are these helps - or is it forbidden for a woman to know them?"

"No, not at all.  It is one of the strange things that I can tell a woman but it does not help her - as our old saying has it, 'tell a man that he eats honey too much, but he still eats honey.'  So I will tell you what I have seen and found, but it is poor, very poor.

Very well, then, the first help is 

'To make a lady see you, ask her help.'

It is strange, but ladies do not want you to be strong, they want to help you.  If a man wants to be big and impressive, the ladies laugh at this foolishness.  He is like a silly loud boy.  But if a man is weak and helpless, and asks help, the ladies give it, and then the ladies feel they have a duty to him, so they suddenly see him as a friend almost, if even they never saw him before.  I do not understand this.  And it took me many years before I understood this thing - a thing I had discovered from the start, with my lovely Nafsika, but was too young and foolish to understand then."

"And your second help?"  I asked, impatient to learn these secrets of a lifetime.

"Well, it is this:

'The way to a lady's heart is through her nose.'"

" - Her nose, Alekko?  You are making fun of me, surely?"  I said.

"But no, lady, it is God's truth.  I mean, of course, give her flowers - always, every time.  For a man it is quite different, but for a lady it is the nose.  Give her flowers when you see her, flowers in the morning, flowers when you eat, flowers in the evening, flowers at night.  Believe me, you cannot give too many flowers.  Is this not so, lady?"

And yes, John, it was so.  I always wanted you to give me flowers, but sadly it never seemed to occur to you - books, yes, but flowers never.  It does not matter.

Alekko paused, as if unwilling to continue.

"Are there more helps, Alekko?  You're hesitating."

"Well then, it is, well, what shall I say?, it is difficult for me to say.  There is a third help, but I do not know if I can say it."

"Why not, Alekko, is it so secret, then?"

"No, not secret, but I should not say it to a lady, perhaps only to a gentleman..."

"Oh, I see, Alekko.  But I am a married woman - " and the word 'married' sent a stab through my heart.  I'm sorry John, but I must be honest, because to understand what happened you must know what led up to it, the stages along the way, " - you can tell me.  Go on...," I said.

I waited, and finally Alekko with surprising embarrassment said:

"Well, the third help is that

'You must take your socks off first, not last.'"

I could not help bursting out laughing at this, and poor Alekko went deep red.  I laughed so because - but I must not say, it would not be fair - this power of the word is a terrible thing, it draws you on and on, makes you reckless.

"So, Alekko, are these all your helps?"  He nodded.  "Well, Alekko, I think these are clearly all very true, and that you are the wisest man I know" - and I gave him a kiss on the cheek.  This seemed to comfort him somewhat.

"But do you know what you have invented here?"  I asked him.

"Tell me, I beg you."

"You have here not - as you say - the Laws of Love, because I agree, that is too much to ask of life, but instead something just as wonderful perhaps, Alekko's Three Laws of Romance."

"Yes, lady, you have right.  But many people cannot understand the difference between the two, and are surprised that their lives are so sad."  And that struck home, yes, it certainly did.

"Alekko, tell me something.  In all your stories so far, you have left or been left - you never stay: why is that?"

"Perhaps because even early, before I could say it, I knew the difference between love and romance, and between romance and marriage.  Lady, I have been so happy so many times - and so sad too.  But I have never been bored, because I have always left or been left before this happened.  And I thank God that this was so, because romance cannot last, it must end.  But people do not know this.  They find themselves romantic, they love, they get married - and wake up one day and ask 'who is this person next to me?'  And the only answer they have is 'the person who was next to me yesterday, and who will be next to me tomorrow, and after tomorrow.  I knew this, so I did not stay.  I travelled on, I met new ladies, new romance, and I have been happy more than I have been sad."

"But do you not sometimes wish for children?"

"Ah! lady, do you forget from my stories?  I believe that I have children here and there, but this is not such a great thing.  Making children is easy - too easy, everybody does it."

"But don't you feel responsible towards them, don't you feel you should be there to help bring them up?"

"I am not a father, though I have children.  I would be bad as a father, I am a child myself.  They are better without me.  And I hope their lovely mothers are better without me too, because they have the memory of our love together, the child as a sign of it, they do not have me, old and fat beside them.  It is better thus."

I saw that it was pointless trying to argue with him on this.  His whole life had been based on living for the moment, on disowning responsibility.  He would not change now.  And in a way, I saw that he was right.  He was true to himself, I am sure that he never promised more to all his lovers, so there was no deceit.  He came, said 'take me as I am or leave me', and if they took him, so be it.  Although I could not ultimately agree with his choices, I could respect his consistency.

"So, Alekko, you never asked anyone to marry you?"

This time I could see that perhaps I had overstepped the mark.  A shadow fell across his face, he dropped his eyes to the ground, his breathing quickened.

"I-I'm sorry, Alekko, I have no right - "  I mumbled apologetically.

"No, lady, it is a good question, and I am not ashamed to speak of these things.  Yes, once, I did ask someone to be my wife.  But first I must say something.

I think sometimes that there is a balance in this world, that for every good there is an evil, for every pleasure a pain.  Perhaps this is God's justice.  For it is a fact, in my life, that everywhere I have gone there has been love, but there has also been the other thing.  

You heard me say, with my Nafsika, of her family's hate for me.  In Venice, there was the Conte and his army friends always plotting destruction.  All my life I have fled this - from my poor Albania where they wanted to make me a soldier, to kill other men, to Spain where the war in the country happened, with that General Franco.  And then Hitler, that madman.

I was in Paris when the Germans invaded France.  It is strange, of all the languages, I do not speak German.  I have never learnt it, never wanted to learn it because its sounds were hard and painful like that Albanian.  Not like my beloved Greek, with its tiny sounds like a thousand birds.  Not like my Contessa's Italian, the voice of music no less.  Not like my poor blind Inez's Spanish, flowing clear and pure like the fountain's water.  And not like French, that language of love and passion and - but I will speak of that later.

So, I was in Paris when the Germans stormed the land like this Ramses your husband tells us so much about.  I was foolish, I could have escaped somewhere, but there was this woman, I did not leave, then she was gone, it was too late to leave for me.  So instead, I must hide in Paris, a fool, trapped.  What would happen?  I did not know.  Once more I put myself in the hands of God.

One day I was walking through the streets of Paris.  I try to be small and not important that no one sees me.  But today, I am unlucky.  I was like the rabbit in the saying: 'the bullet finds the rabbit who is waiting for it.'  So, I am walking when suddenly some soldiers appear.  They order me to stop - what can I do?  I stop.  They ask for my papers.  Of course, I have none.  They ask me who I am, what I am doing.  They find I am a foreigner, so say I am a spy.  Things are not good for me.  They take me to the Gestapo.

There I am very frightened.  This is not my world, all this pain and hate.  My world is of love and happiness.  Why am I here?  What have I done that this happens to me?  I do not know what to say.  I am nobody, I cannot say what I am doing, they will kill me - or worse.

And then, a miracle happens.  I am in this room, with a man in a long black coat.  He is behind a desk, smoking, always smoking.  I sit opposite him, with a light shining in my eyes.  I am tired, hungry, frightened.  He is getting very angry with me.  He says that they will torture me if I do not give names of people.  But who can I give?  The ladies?  How can I give what I do not have?

Somebody enters, an officer, important.  The man behind the desk stands up, salutes, talks to him in German - about me, I think.  And then I see this beautiful woman, dressed richly with furs.  She is standing by the officer - his lady friend, I think.  She is looking at me and listening to the men talking.  Her eyes are fixed on me, but not with hate or not caring, but very strong.  When the men stop talking she takes her man aside, and whispers to him.  The officer looks at me, then at her, speaks to her.  She smiles at him, strokes his cheek.  He lifts his shoulders, then says something to the man in the coat.  He wants to argue, but the officer does not let him.  I cannot believe it - they let me go.  I want to thank the woman for saving me, but she has gone with her officer.

Now I am more careful, I do not go out, except very late at night.  I am trying to think what to do, but again, I am foolish, I cannot decide what is best.  One night, I am walking very late along the Seine.  It is cold and dark, with the buildings black against the stars.  I am standing looking at the water, thinking of sunshine on the water, perhaps of Venice, perhaps of Paxos.  Suddenly there are footsteps behind me.  My heart beats - am I a fool again?  I am caught?  

But no, it is a woman, wrapped up in a long coat and wearing a small soft hat.  I turn back to the river, but then I notice - it is her, the one who saved me.  Do I dare speak to her?  If she is the mistress of the officer, will she report me?  But why is she out so late, and in this poor coat?  I must talk to her.

'You saved my life.  I thank you.'

She stopped, looked around, and then said

'You are foolish to be out without papers.'

'I know, but what can I do?  Why did you help me?'

'Eh bien, why should a young man like you be hurt.  You had not done something.'

'But it was a risk for you, no?' I said.

'Everything is a risk today.  The world is mad.  But listen, you cannot stay out here, it is too dangerous.  Come.'

And she turned and led me through some streets to a house.  Perhaps it was a trap, I thought.  But then I thought, who needs to trap me?  They can take me and kill any day.  So I enter.  I cannot lose.

Inside is a small apartment, but with good furniture, old and heavy.

'How do you trust me?' I asked her as she took off her coat and her little soft hat.

'Because I trust your eyes, because I trust myself when I look at you.  Besides, perhaps you run the risk, not me.  You are with a collaborator, no?'

'No, you are not a collaborator,'  I said.

'That is what they all say, those that spit at me in the street.'  Her eyes shone, she was near tears.  She wanted to talk.  I understood.

'I do not know who you are, or why you do what you do, but I also trust myself, and know that you are not that.'

'No,' she said, 'I am not, but it is hard, so hard, to be hated by the people you love.'  And then she wept.  I went to her, and held her as she wept.  She was so small, and young, yet she carried so much.

She let me stay with her.  She said that no Gestapo would dare trouble here.  She found papers for me.  She did so much, so much.  And I could give her nothing, except that I took without question because I trusted her.  And she was glad of that.

For she gradually told me of her life.  How she had been sitting in a small cafe one night when this Gestapo officer had asked if he might sit at her table where she was with friends.  He was very polite, but he was a German.  She wanted to leave, the German said please no.  Her friends said to her 'stay'.  Later she found out why.  The German wanted to see her, gave his card.  Her friends made her see him.  Her friends, of course, were in the Resistance.  They knew it would be useful for her to know this Gestapo officer.  So she must sacrifice herself as others had sacrificed themselves, some in death, some in other things.  She became his mistress.  She found out much, she saved many lives.  All this she told me.  She was 22, she hated her life, but lived it for others.  Her name was Madeleine.

Of course I loved her.  I had never met such strength, such love, such suffering.  She lived a death, hated, loved, lying.  I do not know how she lived on.  I wept to myself when she left me in the morning.  I stayed in bed, frightened to go out, not able to think of what she would do.  I kissed where she had slept next to me.

And I asked her to marry me.

I asked her not because she loved me - for many had loved me, and I had loved many too, not because she had saved me, but because she would have saved anybody, because she was the greatest person who I ever met.  She was a saint, an angel, call her anything, but I knew I would never meet a such again, and that I wanted her to be my wife.

I wanted her to flee with me.  I could not bear the thought of her with her officer any more.  But when I asked her she kissed me gently and shook her head.  She said she could not leave, she must continue because every day she might save someone.  She wept.  I wept.  Over the next few weeks I asked her again, begged her, but I knew that she would not change her mind.  She was too strong, too strong for me.  I was nothing beside her.  I was child in this cruel world of women and men.  

Then one night she did not come back.  I was terrified.  Not for myself, but for her, for what this might mean.  I dared to go out, to find some of her friends who trusted me a little.  They said that she would come back, that she was out with her officer.  But the next day, and the next day, she did not come back.  No message, no word.  I stayed in the apartment, I cried like a dog that has lost its mistress.  I knew she would never come back, I knew what had happened.  I wanted to die I was so sick with grief.

I went out of Paris, I went to the coast, near Boulogne.  I looked out to the sea, which was dark, but not rough.  I decided that I would leave this country with its war and its hate and its pain.  I was still young, healthy, and now I did not care.  I had brought some fat with me.  I rubbed it on my body.  I jumped in the sea, and I swam and swam.  For hours in the darkness, with only moon and the stars, for long hours.  But God was with me, the wind was low, there were no ships.  I swam, and so I came to England."

"Alekko, you swam across the Channel to England?"  I asked, stunned by his story.

"As we say 'he who has nothing must become a rich man before he dies'.  I could lose nothing, I had nothing, I risked nothing.  And so I came to England."

Oh, Alekko, that is such a sad and terrible story.  I'm so sorry,"  I said somewhat feebly, confronted by all that he had gone through.

"Yes, it is a sad story, but the sadder story is not mine.  I lived on, I came to England, where they put me in a camp for foreigners on the Isle of Man - I had no papers here too.  But I did not mind.  I wanted to forget everything.  This was a good place to forget - and it was an island, with the sea which could be smelled everywhere, which I loved.

Alekko's story had taken me somewhere I had not expected - Occupied Paris, torture, secret agents, death, internment camps.  Suddenly I felt inadequate, as if my other talks with him had been very superficial.  I did not know how to go on with our conversation.  Luckily you decided it was time to go in to the departure lounge where we queued for a while then boarded the plane.

I thought that I did not like flying, but this was an experience I would not have missed.  As we rose up from the airport, the whole expanse of the desert spread out around us.  I felt for the first time that we were really in the heart of Africa - or at least in the heart of a huge expanse of sand.

In a way, of course, it was terrifying: there was simply nothing there.  Just waves of sand, a few dunes, some strange-looking rocks, a tiny road that seemed to be going to Abu Simbel too - where else was there?  But the most terrifying sight was that great Lake Nasser.  All around its edges, for what looked like hundreds of yards, there was this huge great brown sludge, this giant stain around the blue-green waters.  It was so obvious what was happening: the huge lake was drying up.  But what did they expect?  If you put a huge surface of water under the sun, isn't it bound to evaporate?

And that brown sludge, isn't it obvious what that is - or am I being naive or stupid or something?  As you said John, the Nile was the great renewer, giving rebirth to the land with its annual inundations.  And what was that inundation, but mud, brought down from upper reaches of the Nile?  So what happens if you build a huge dam to stop the water pouring through all at once - isn't it obvious that the mud gradually builds up behind the dam?  So this great and wonderful dam is in fact doomed to fill up with the precious mud that was once the very life of Egypt.

And then - forgive me, John, if this is all wrong, or I'm making some huge blunder somewhere, I know I'm only an ignorant woman who left schools with a few useless 'O'-levels, but I really can't see the flaw in my logic here - if most of this mud is stuck in the dam, what will the farmers use to grow their crops?  Lots of chemicals, presumably.  So, this great dam project, this demonstration of Man's dominion over Nature, will cause not only enormous pollution and God knows what side effects further downstream, but is in any case, bound to destroy itself as it fills up with the mud it no longer lets through.  Am I making some glaring error in all this, or is just that the men who built this were so carried away with a sense of power and their own importance that they overlooked these minor inconveniences?  And what happens if the dam breaks - surely everything - including however many million in Cairo - will simply be swept away by a huge tidal wave charging down the Nile Valley.  I can see why they have so many soldiers there - it must be the perfect terrorist target.  Sometimes my blood boils when I think of this kind of stupidity.

Well, perhaps not all this passed through my mind as we flew over the vanishing waters - some, all right, a lot of this I have been thinking about since.  But when I saw those huge expanses of mud, I felt a similar kind of sickness in the pit of my stomach.  It was just obvious to me that this was a total disaster.

And yes, you're right, I did say that your precious Ramses looked like a doll, and his ridiculous re-made temple like a jelly-mould.  But I think you missed the feeling with which it was said.  Alekko didn't.  He looked at me as if to say 'what is the matter?'.  But seeing these monuments next to this huge folly made me angry to think of all this stupid wasted effort, all the people, slaves I expect, toiling, dying, in this heat just to flatter the vanity of some king.  What did Ramses want with conquering this land, extending his empire here?  What was the point?  So that his scribe could add a few lines to his next poem praising the king?

As you may have gathered, I couldn't enjoy the temple.  Its purpose was wrong, its position ridiculous - we were so far from everywhere, it was almost a joke - and it was in any case a fake - rebuilt from pieces like some Hollywood scenery for a Biblical epic.  And I didn't like the petty way Ramses was bigger than his queen, or had two statues to her one.  If he was so great, couldn't he have shown a little generosity?  And as for marrying his own daughter - words fail me.

Look, I have become quite worked up.  Ridiculous, isn't it?  I'm not even there any more, but just thinking about it, just writing about it is upsetting me.  I suppose describing what happened to Alekko started it all off.  I hadn't intended saying these things, but the words just came.  I'm sorry John, talking/writing like this isn't going to help you to understand what happened to me, or why.  I shall be calmer when I write what occurred the next day, because that day important things were set in train.

You will probably be racking your brain, trying to remember something dramatic that occurred, but you won't, because at first they were only tiny, apparently insignificant events which later grew in importance.  Or rather it was a whole chain of things which, while important in themselves, especially to others, probably seemed irrelevant at the time to me - and to you - but which later all came together in an extraordinary way, and caused extraordinary things to happen.  And from reading your own words, I see now that unexpected things were beginning to happen to you too, that you too were beginning to change in a way that I had not expected, just as I was.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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