Sunday, 23 September 2012

Work

There was a crack of thunder that shook the house. Heavy rain fell continuously for six hours. We watched it through the windows; ventured onto the porch with an umbrella to see the stream that ran down the steps and by the house joined by tributaries from the roof.
It continued into the night. At dawn the air was crystal. A few wispy clouds dispersed and the day became immaculate blue, the village drying in the sun after its dousing.
I like tidying up the disorder I make. It has a consoling monotony like the self-grooming of cats and – who doesn’t do it? I enjoy seeing a cook in their kitchen, between preparing food wiping surfaces, sweeping, washing up, putting things in their place, with great economy of movement they groom their workspace. Humming. Chatting. So we maintain our home, and hear each other’s noises around the house; outside the sounds of the village – rarely inharmonious; cats bickering about territory; the twitter of children; caged dogs barking; the rougher shouts of boys playing games or riding their BMXs up and down steep alleys off and on Democracy Street, youths on scooters going faster than sensible on the lower road, a car passing through, laughter of grown-ups, the mew of an eagle, folding its pinions to stoop from the crags into the myrtle and hollyoak above the olive line; the thrum of a mixer and power tools across the roofs mending, building, maintaining the village; a tradesman’s tannoy arriving and fading as he trawls the upper and lower roads with a van of his wares, now and then a plane going over - a remote silhouette chased by a muted rumble - and the quiet that falls in the afternoon.
We’ve been doing odd jobs. On this occasion they quell my anxieties; consoling, satisfying; giving meaning and control; tasks, like easy exam essays with beginnings and middles and ends connecting to a larger thing, like saving the world or getting the plumbing right. The taps we inherited in the bathroom and kitchen sinks were irritatingly over-designed. Control of flow was tricky as was mixing temperatures. Ill-positioned over basins they splashed water on the floor. They leaked. Their washers could not be replaced. Removing them meant groping in the dark for small rusted bolts on which it was tricky to get torsion. We stalked them with penetrating oil and a bottle spanner that fitted. Replacement was an easy re-trace. Taps are used all the time every day, so I’ve opportunities to feel pleased.
We’ve mended other things; punctures in the tyres of both bicycles; a gate that wouldn’t close; a banister on the balcony that rocked. We've got rid of one old plastic table flaking holes from too much sun, and found another by the bins with plenty of life left. The chimney cover of the stove has fallen off, letting in rain through the flue. To climb up the side wall meant footing a ladder in the neighbours’ garden. The angle was dangerous.
“Why not cement a footing on the garden wall between?” said Lin
“Yes and drill two tethering rings on the wall to secure the ladder”
The weather’s sublime. A clear sky, gentle breeze, the air fresh and clear to the mainland over the velvet blue of the sea with now and then a sail moving slowly between the wind silvered green of olives covering the gentle hills between us and the invisible shore. Lin mixed up some concrete; put plastic bags over the ends of the ladder, dropped them into the concrete and let the cement set overnight. Next day the foothold was secure. To complete the job we waited for the end of siesta and at 5.30 climbed the ladder, held by Lin, and drilled two 6 inch holes for the rings. The big rawlplugs fitted neatly. The rings screwed in firmly. I tied the ladder to them, stepped carefully up two rungs and refitted the stove pipe. Time for a cup of tea; coffee for Lin.

The village seems to have more than the usual number of babies and toddlers in it, cosseted and shown off with smiles and pride. Such dreams these infants must have of safety and love, careless for years yet. I remember scratching the floor of my nursery – sending dust motes swirling into a patch of sunlight on the deep green carpet; thinking alone
“I’m only four. I haven’t got to go to school for years”
Feeling deepest content.
Did clever humans think once
“It’s only the early days of the world. We have so much time”?
Aborigines lived across Australia for 30000 years before European discovery - uncovery. There are cave paintings at Chauvet with similar pictures of animal processions seeming to overlap. Carbon-dating showed these friezes drawn tens of thousands of years apart.
So we lived - for millennia.
Such a life must have been rugged and dangerous but without alternatives. I yen at times to be so outside modern chronology, in a place where time is a cycle made of an infinity of days, nights and seasons, and the land was surveyed by songs passed through generations.
It would be as if every experience contained eternity and infinity as it was taught me by my great grandmother as we sat on a veranda at her cottage in Itchen Abbas gazing at the night sky – still dark in the aftermath of wartime blackout, a village three miles from Winchester not yet exuding yellow light to obscure the heavens. The edge of our galaxy spread from the top of our thatched roof to the trees at the bottom of our garden.
“That’s the Milky Way” said Gaga - Lucy Halkett.
“There do you see those stars, That’s the plough and there’s the North Star that sailor’s steer by” “What’s after the stars?”
“They go on and on”
“But what’s after that”
“They just go on”
“But where’s the end of the sky?”
 “There is no end”
“When did the stars start?”
Was that how I put it or had she said something to a toddler about the universe or our galaxy. I don’t think so. I might have asked where heaven was or where God lived and she’d perhaps, despite her no-nonsense attitude to religion, but to humour me, said ‘Beyond the stars”. I can’t remember.
What I remember was the excitement of the mystery that the space all about us went on for ever and ever and ever and ever and had no beginning and would have no end. Thus I was shown a mystery that’s still a mystery. Ineffably so, since I’m unable to grasp the symbols and sequence of open-ended equations that help physicists and astronomers to conceive infinity and eternity. Some people who’ve read encyclopedia pieces on ‘The Universe’ will defend the ‘Big Bang’ as a satisfactory definition of a start, an explanation marginally more scientific than the first chapters of Genesis and without their majesty and beauty; no question that when science can describe what for the moment is still best described by theology, it will be as beautiful as it is when encompassing the wonder of evolution – a more miraculous, mysterious and civilised account of the place of men in the world than the rest of Genesis.
Mark made a remark at his and Sally's BBQ the other evening as we sat out on their balcony in the cool of the evening.
"Some of the old people in the village don't do hospitals. They don't understand them. They grow old resigned and choose to die at home, accepting their time's up"
I wonder at such innocence.  Our hospitals are for keeping people alive. Our mortality is a sort of humiliation to modern medicine. We’ve taken such strides to prolong and protect lives. We know people who’ve refused treatment; made a deal on palliation and chosen their time. Is that what Mark meant? I know I'm unused to death. I've been in situations that are hazardous, like storms at sea in a small boat, but I’ve never faced death, never been a soldier under fire, or faced a lion with a spear or risked being killed for my beliefs, never seen a dead body even...well once, when our neighbour, Mr Dhaliwal, was laid out in an open coffin in his front room the day of his funeral. Reposed.

There are dawns in England when the moon’s almost as bright as the rising sun; grass and leaves and petals dappled with shining drops of dew like the first morning of the resurrection, when in the long morning strips of light and dark the prostitute Mary supposed for a moment that she saw the gardener.
I was talking to Carol at the Lighthouse table top sale on Saturday; sort of leaning on her shoulder – verbally - getting round to touching on my sadness and apprehension about the state of the world. She organises things; in this case the regular Saturday sale at this odd ugly building on the edge of the dual carriageway at Gouvia, which gets mixed with Kontokali. She mentioned organising young volunteers to clear litter from the street where she lives in the small shops and houses back from Garitsa on the south side of the city.
“Don’t just grumble about it I said, for sure get out there with sacks and brooms and gloves and tidy it up for yourselves.
And they did
“You’re good, Carol” I said “You're always doing things, organising, getting things done, the best kind of busy body, not busybody, I mean a busy...body!”
“Well thank you, Simon”
I told her with pride about our litter clearing and flower bedding in Handsworth.
“People come along and give you plants when they see what you’re up to. They’re heartened”
“For sure, for sure”
she bustled about picking things from people’s stalls suggesting they buy, finding a shirt she showed Lin for me and a well cut Italian jacket in tight tweed, stylish – all for €4.
“You know" I said "there are dreadful places, you know, estates full of crime, drugs, mess and misery in England. It’s often a woman, a strong woman, who says ‘that’s enough. This is going to stop. It doesn’t always work. That’d be too easy. I’m just saying I like your spirit, and what you do here and in other places on the island. Whenever two or three are gathered together and all that….”
I was talking too with the Pastor, Miltiades ("like the commander at Marathon' he said last year, so that I knew at once the name he had), the large and reassuring man who with his family helps manage the Lighthouse and his church in town and who listens, free of unction
“How are you?” he asks with such kindness
“Oh fine but I’m worried about my mother. She’s not well”
We exchanged a handshake as he pondered my concerns and made me a coffee.
Lin and I used the WiFi upstairs; skyped Scotland; answered email.
Later we bought giros from George’s and took them to the shore at Gouvinon where’s there’s a jetty and people swimming or sitting chatting and a tree with a circular plaka’d seat around it. A young woman in a bikini was juggling clubs on the end of another jetty. We sat in pied shade waving away occasional wasps gazing at the sea and the parched mainland five miles off between the green headlands of the bay, talking between bites of delectable pork and chips and fresh pitta, throwing morsels of food to small fry and a couple of crabs small as almonds invisible until they moved on shallow stones lapped by wavelets.
“We return the car again on Monday” said Lin
“Yes. Better shop for heavier things now, We’ll be using the bus and my bicycle for the next fortnight”
The weather on Sunday was beautiful. We drove to the table top sale at Sally’s where I had tea and a cheese and an onion toasty and skyped my mum’s carer Sharon
'Your mum' she’d emailed me the day before ‘needs considerably more hands-on care now and this is where I am finding Liz's help invaluable.’ Amy best friend Liz has come up from Edinburgh to help. She ‘makes things less stressful and tiring for me, but particularly for your Mom. Which is really what it’s all about.’
I chatted to Liz too. “Skype your mum in about 3 hours” said Sharon.
Lin and I sat on Dafnilia Beach and bathed in the shallow clear sea afterwards lying together on towels on the narrow pebbled strand reading our books – an exposure impossible a few days earlier, now delightful. A few others were enjoying an afternoon by the sea, chatting quietly in Greek, relaxing on a Sunday afternoon - well spaced.
Back at Sally’s I skyped Mum and to my relief she seemed cheered and coherent and we could talk and smile and wave to one another.
“My next letter should arrive on Monday” I said
“I love your letters”
We blew kisses and said goodbye.
“I’ll skype you tomorrow or Tuesday”
Next we were talking to Richard, about the plumbing in his bathroom, his flight on Monday to Morocco, to Marrakesh. He’s 31 but we still fuss
“Have you got a copy of your passport? Be careful on the roads...You can glimpse the peaks of the Atlas mountains from the city if it’s clear. Bye Bye. Love you”
*** ***
“Where shall we go now?”
“Palia Sinies?”
I saw this place briefly in the Spring passing it on my way down on my bicycle from Pantocrator. This time we ascended through Vinglatouri – meaning ‘a lookout’ - off the corniche near Nisaki and followed a new road we’d seen from the top of Pantocrator that started from a rough and sinuous concrete track at the top of the village and continued for over four kilometres in wide circles carved out of the sides of a winding ravine, the metal surface stopping at a tight corner where we parked and walked another mile and a half on a gravelled track scored into small wadis by rain.
The road to Old Sinies
The quiet was palpable with now and then the remote sound of bells on invisible goats pastured above the olive line.
“It’s round the next corner” I promised Lin after twenty minutes.
But the track wound on.
“Well the next”
We walked in silence and there round a bend on a ride above the road was a stone house with a crack down the middle.
We came closer, passed round a gate to stop vehicle access, with a large notice about EU funds for a restoration between 2007-2013.
“They must have dried up with the start of the crisis” I said
“Was it that long ago?”
“Yes 2008 was when everything started to go pearshaped – everywhere”
Along a grassy track surrounded by the possibility of a village full of people, a priest, livestock dogs and cats and in a cluster – five separate wells brimming with clear water.
Work was being done –possibly cancelled – on the highest building; the church of course. Always a good place to start. There were cans of snake repellent dotted about and warnings to keep off the new building. We peered in through a small open window behind the altar to see ranks of scaffolding. Through the greenery that intertwined and covered the grey stonework the form of the village was becoming discernible, a gully impenetrable with brambles, hawthorn and creepers ran below us to the central cluster of houses, with others rising either side with terraces for holding soil, gardens, pens for chicken, for a pig, for sheep. Up here was fine for goats but sheep would struggle to make a living. There was an allotments near the wells, rolled barbed wire along the top of a chicken wire fence – worked by someone until perhaps only a decade ago long after the village was deserted, coming back to the place they’d grown up. Gazing back the way we'd come it was fr a moment as if someone was there, below us, gazing back.
Getting up from the shore would have been most of day’s journey by donkey or on foot. What threats from the sea makes a village so remote. Yet perhaps it wasn’t. The village lies below the steepest side of Pantocrator, whose monks it may have served. In the quiet we could hear snatches of conversation far above us, as visitors strolled close the cluster of radio masts in stark silhouette or peered down from the wall by the empty monastery up there. There would have been hard self-sufficiency, with no comparisons until men travelling returned with accounts of an easier life, travelling to and beyond the city clear in the distance. Then with so many departed for work and war the Demos may have encouraged those who remained to move to a new village five kilometres east over the mountains – New Sinies on the coast road to Cassiopi where it turns briefly inland, above the cliffs between Koloura and Ag Stefanos. We’ve passed there not noticing it. I guess at this.
Παλιές Σινιές

We strolled back to our car, drove back to the sea and home.
Over supper we watched a black comedy called God Bless America in which the heroes, Frank and Roxy, go on a spree – slaughtering rude, selfish and mean people who talk on their mobiles in the cinema, play loud music that keeps their neighbours awake, make high fives, along with spoiled celebrity wannabees, shock jocks making a mint on faux-patriotism, news commentators stirring fear and hatred, designers of clothes and dolls that sexualize children, Tea Party bullies, pastors of hate cults, comedians getting laughs from mocking minorities. To finish Frank and Roxy let rip with their guns at the finals of an America’s Got Talent show that begins with orchestrated mockery by the studio audience of a glamorised worst audition, gunning down the judges and working their way through the performers and the audience until riddled, Bonny and Clyde style, by cops in the gallery. Roll credits. 
“That was a good day”
“Yes it was” said Lin.


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