carolyn

At the village school in the old days, the children of the policeman, the priest, the retired army officers, the teachers, the postman and the shop keepers stood out from the rest – they were well-dressed with polished leather shoes.

Theodoros, the postman of the village, being salaried, had the opportunity to save money and bought the piece of land where our family had their threshing floor, right on the main road through the village, with two huge mulberry trees nearby which provided shade during harvest time. If you know about farm work, you can imagine the position, the view, and the light wind at the end of summer to help with the winnowing, separating the grain from the chaff.

On this plot of land, a modern house was then built with concrete columns and slabs and bricks and mortar, duly rendered on the outside, plastered on the inside, then painted a cypress green colour, just as if it were in a city. The roof had European-style tiles, first ever in the area. The front section downstairs was used as a storeroom, the family lived at the back, and upstairs was rented to the state as the doctor’s residence and rooms for receiving patients.

As time passed Theodoros no longer used his fine white horse to go to the nearby villages to deliver the mail but instead used a brand new car which he parked on the side of the house behind his tractor. His full head of hair was now silver grey making him look quite distinguished, his eyes as merry as ever.

Then a second postman was taken on to deal with the villages, there was a full-time clerk at the post office, so Theodoros only looked after the postal delivery in the sprawling village itself, which now boasted a branch of the Agricultural Bank of Greece. He would deliver on foot going from house to house in the busy centre of the village, greeting everyone, knocking on doors to leave letters. He used his car to drive up to the highest neighbourhoods. It made a very personalized service.

His wife Angelika was thin, head always covered with a scarf for protection from the sun, helped with the farmwork, looked after her ailing mother-in-law and three children. Those children spent quite some time peeping around the corner of the house giggling when I first visited the village all those years ago.

An Englishwoman who had married at another village started coming to the primary school on Saturdays to give English lessons. The children, now handsome boys and a beautiful girl, joined the class. They finished junior high school, then senior high school, then went to study in Athens, found well-paid jobs, married and produced children. An exemplary family all round.

Theodoros still had a good income even when retired, as civil service pensions in Greece are renowned for being high. He had time on his hands, so could visit grandchildren in Athens and a relative here and there who had moved away. Angelika was happy to stay at home, still taking care of her mother-in-law and the vegetable patch at the back of the house.

One year in the first days of September, before the grape harvest and not long after the lively village fair and dance which lasted until dawn, Theodoros made use of his free time and his spare money. He went to Mykonos, the most expensive and cosmopolitan island in Greece in the 1980s. Not with his wife. He took Dina with him, a still shapely luscious housewife his age who lived in the centre of the village.

They returned to their respective houses a few weeks later, and the village settled down once more to its usual rhythm. It was time to harvest grapes and make wine, and Theodoros and his wife Angelika gathered their grapes from their vineyard near the vegetable patch. The wine that year was exceptional.

An SMS appeared on my phone last November reminding me it was time to pay the dues for maintenance of our graves and the upkeep of the local cemetery.

This message appears about the same time each year, mentioning it can be done through Alpha Bank at such and such account number, or in person at the church. One afternoon last week as I was driving past on the way back from the supermarket, I saw the priest’s car parked outside, pulled over and parked next to a long whitewashed stone wall.

The church looks closed, but there is a little sign that says “Close The Door – Airconditioned”. It’s a bit of a tight moment to push the heavy ornate iron door inwards, and then to pull the inside wooden door towards you. To ease the situation there’s a little sign that says “Door Opens Outwards” and another that says “Mind Your Feet”.

It is warm inside thanks to the airconditioning that is working effectively against the cold January weather, and looks cozy in the half dark with the tiny flames of votive candles reflecting off polished brass and glass. The sumptuous rich red carpet softens any noise. The walls are covered in icons, in memory of souls departed. It seems deserted.

Behind the carved wooden sanctuary screen there is a movement and suddenly the church bells ring out for a few moments. Silence again. Then the figure behind the screen moves, stops, continues on its way to the sanctuary door on the right. A pale thin young man has been standing there with his hymn books, ready for the service of Evensong.

The priest appears, hesitates on the top marble step as if he’d only just seen me. He greets me by name. He has a way with remembering names, even of those who don’t attend church regularly.

I greet him and state my business, he says he doesn’t want to hold me up or keep me waiting, so goes back into the sanctuary returning with the receipt book and a pen. There’s a table just by, near the huge dark wooden carved throne where the Archbishop would be seated. It’s convenient for resting the receipt book on. One receipt in my name, one receipt in the husband’s name. Ten euros each.

The priest farewells me with good wishes for the new year and I’m about to leave, but there is no congregation, not even the ladies who attend church more regularly than most. I feel bad for the priest and decide to stay; after all I do in fact have a free fifteen minutes. It’s really cold outside and there’s nothing in the supermarket shopping on the back seat of the car that will spoil by being out of the fridge for a little longer.

Evensong starts. The priest’s powerful voice fills every corner of the church, the cantor responds in turn, the Byzantine chanting is uplifting and half an hour passes quickly. Then a mobile phone rings, the chanting stops and the church fills with silence.

I’m not sure if the service has finished and the minutes pass. As I leave, the difficult wooden door thuds closed behind me, probably reverberating around the whole church.

Outside from the steps of the church I look across the road to the cemetery dead ahead of me behind the whitewashed wall. Indeed it does look tidy and well maintained, with the white tombstones gleaming eerily in the fading winter afternoon light. Yes, it was definitely worth buying our plots to have everything nice and organized, and paying the annual fee, in spite of what the husband says.

When Kyrios Vasilis the old man next door died, his children set about emptying his little house, the barn and the stable. Out in the middle of the field that over the years had produced fine crops of potatoes, corn, wheat and even peanuts when they were getting good prices in the late 1970s before imports started from Italy, there they were – all that remained of their parents’ earthly possessions.

There was the cart with the enormous but thin wooden wheels, with iron bands around the circumference that made such a heavy rumble on the flat roads across the fertile plain that encircles Pyrgos. The neighbor would use it to take his produce to town, to the elegant neoclassical Market Place designed by Ziller, built in the 1890s.

Then there was the huge abari, a wooden box about a metre high and two metres long with a division in the middle, one part for storing his wheat and the other for his corn, but now perched crookedly at an angle on top of rickety wooden chairs with woven plastic seats, dirty red and faded yellow.

On the heap there were also two old empty wooden trunks that had held their mother’s dowry of hand woven cotton bed linen and heavy blankets made from wool, and mats made from prickly goat hair for use in front of the fireplace. The trunks gaped open, their lids at a strange angle.

There they all were, in a jumbled pile.

And then they weren’t there.

We’d gone up to the village for a few days to cut the brambles hanging over from the field above ours, and when we got back we realized that everything had disappeared. There was just a big black circle in the middle of the field.

I still wonder, did his children also burn the photos that I’d seen on the wall of the little house.

It was the warmest November ever. My girlfriend had arrived in Athens from abroad and we were euphoric. We’d gone down to Sounion two days before and there’s a photo of me barefoot on the rocks below the temple and we were laughing about going swimming in our underwear.

We’d rented a basement in Drossopoulou Street. We didn’t mind the miserable buildings, dark and dirty from the buses that lumbered along on their way towards friendlier parts of Athens that boasted tree-lined streets. That’s where my sister lived, in an apartment that we brothers had all contributed to so that she’d have her own house and dowry, and could get married. She’d invited us to drop by, and on the way from the bus window we saw the banners and signs on the Polytechnic building, and the crowds of students in the forecourt, others surging out onto the street, chanting and calling for reforms.

Some students were writing slogans on the buses as they pulled up at the traffic lights. Then the buses would continue on their way towards Omonia Square and then up towards Constitution Square, carrying the messages and demands for change and freedom all over Athens.

The next day, the wide street in front of the Polytechnic had been closed off, and buses were being diverted along other routes. In the distance we could see the crowd of students, and I wanted to join them. I said that I had to go and take part, it was my duty to protest, I had to go to the Polytechnic too, and my girlfriend let me go.

But I didn’t stay. I went back to our basement in Drossopoulou Street because we were taking a ferry to Monemvasia the next morning.

I was there that day, but I wasn’t there that night when the tanks came rumbling and one of my friends from school was killed. Once I looked at footage and photos and scenes from that night, searching for him. In the end I found his photo, but on the headstone of his grave at our cemetery.

It would have meant demolition of family life. Me, the mother of four, the upright citizen known for honesty, reliability, sobriety and religious faith, being invited to the police station for an interview.

At that time we used to keep our farm animals at a field not far away, which meant visiting twice a day, two minutes by car. That morning was different because no dew had fallen during the night, meaning the goats could be taken out of the barn earlier. Eating grass wet with dew brings on parasites in the digestive system. It wasn’t too chilly so I set off on foot, passing houses and small olive groves, for the ten minute walk.

I greet the goats on arrival as always. But through the crack in the door of the barn I glimpse someone walking along our lane, silhouetted against the sunrise – an illegal immigrant, one of the many who have come south for our warmer winter. An orange grove on one side of the field hides the barn from the road, the nearest house is long abandoned and half covered in bramble bushes and the only occupied house is too far away. There is no dog to bark at strangers.

A stab of fear is followed by a brief second of sadness, then clarity takes over. The shovel is leaning against the grey wall beside me, its long shaft fashioned from sturdy oak wood, tight in the metal socket of the scoop which is still a cheerful sky-blue colour just like new. The edge of the shovel is black and stained from clearing out the barn, from being thrust and scraped and grated across the rough concrete floor. I am standing on stinking damp straw, I see dung and some grains of corn fallen from the feed pans, and a toothpick dropped by the husband. He always has one in his mouth, like others have a cigarette.

All-powerful and calm now, I take the shovel and raise it above my head and wait. A goat squats to urinate noisily. Then another slowly gets to her feet wanting to be milked and to go outside to graze. I wait… Then through the window of the barn in the distance near where the lane disappears behind tall reeds I see the illegal immigrant continuing on his way, unaware of his brush with death.