Of Love and Fish

IMG_0762.jpgIt might be true to say that Lakis, the seventeen year old new arrival to Athens, was born with an innate distrust of women. That, or it was his mother who influenced him. Without indulging in cheap psychology, let us give the idea a try. His history provides more than enough evidence. Lakis often goes over it, again and again. Do not be deceived by his job, and its meagre demands on his intellect. Crying daily “Sardines. Lovely sardines!” at the fish market may be simple enough, but it is what hides behind it that informs his character.

The weak muscle of his eye was the first thing his mother disliked. Born of a good family, her father a sea captain, she had always lusted after his men. She admired strong muscles in every form. She fell pregnant by one of them. Her father beat her with a chair and then locked her in a room overlooking the sea.

“He is an old-fashioned, hard-headed Greek,” her mother told her. “What can we do? You should have kept your skirts down, my girl.”

Out she pressed her tongue, in defiance. But there was no defying the will of her father. “I will show him, I will,” she repeated day and night, greeting her teeth, biting the insides of her cheeks. “I will show him.” And when her “muscle” man did not show up, when she heard he had sailed to Africa, the saying changed to, “I will show them!” Which she did. She “showed” everyone, including her son Lakis, of the weak eye muscle, by depriving them of her presence. By hiding away in her head.

The boy was starved of love. His mother was bent on revenge, his grandmother on mourning her absent captain of a husband. The boy played on his own and spoke to himself. All day, every day, in that lonely room, on top of the sad house overlooking the sea, overlooking the abode of his father. Sometimes he drew lines on the wooden floorboards. With his little finger. Invisible lines, like the lines ships draw on the surface of the sea. Sometimes he hummed songs he never heard in reality, rubbing with his index finger his favourite nail on the window frame. Sometimes he looked out of the window, like his own mother had looked at the sea, when she was longing for love herself and lost her mind to revenge. A ship passed every now and then. Clouds passed often. Boats passed every day. Boats with solitary men, escaping their pregnant wives. He tried to see if one of them was his father. But no one looked up at his window. No one seemed to look for him. Some boats were laden with catch. Fish that shone and trembled. Lakis felt sorry for the fish. Each one outside the water it loved. Each one like him, lonely, frightened, not knowing where it would end up. His grandmother, who never knew the names of fish, told him they were sardines. She brought him the food that someone from downstairs cooked. She stayed with him for a few minutes, by the window, looking out to sea.

“You have the best view, you lucky one!” she told him. “What do I need a view of the sea. My husband sees it in his travels all day.” His mother never came. Not once after she was allowed out of that room. She scoured the four corners of their house, she haunted its creaky staircases, its corridors, speaking to the walls and their ceilings. But she never spoke to Lakis or anybody else.

When it was time for him to go to school, he simply did not go. He did not know anything about schools. How was he to know? Nobody told him. Nobody saw him. Nobody knew of him. Except a few close family members and they pretended not to know. They turned a blind eye to his existence, because it meant shame. So he grew up on his own, unschooled. With the sea, the silence and the sad, dying fish for company. Until, just around ten, he ran away.

It was so simple. He could have done it years ago had he known how simple it was! He just did not let his grandmother go out and lock the door behind her. He pushed past her and ran and ran till he could no longer breath. There he stopped and stood. He looked around him. It was a big opening of the sea with many boats standing still. Men were sitting on the ground, like he sat in his room, mending their nets. He went and sat next to one of them. The quietest one, the one sitting furthest apart from the others. Neither of them spoke. Much later, the man turned to him:

“You are a quiet boy. What is your name?”

“Lakis.” And that was the beginning of the love story that kept the boy alive. He answered the questions well enough for Kyrios Nikos, a refugee himself, to understand the tragedy of the situation.

“My name is Nikos,” he said and shook hands with the boy. “You can stay with me.”

Lakis stayed with Kyrios Nikos for a few years, helping with the fishing and the mending. Helping with the loneliness and the desolation of an uprooted life. It was during those years that he learnt about the world.

“Another capital, Kyrie Niko? How many capitals has the world got?”

“Many, Laki mou. Many. The world is a big place.”

“How do you remember them all?”

“I remember the important ones. Smyrni, the Paris of Anatolia.”

However, despite the best intentions, Kyrios Nikos was not that good a teacher for Laki. The problem was he kept mixing metaphors with facts.

“So, was Smyrni a capital? Your Smyrni?” Lakis tried to clarify things in his mind.

“Yes!” Kyrios Nikos exclaimed. “The capital of my heart!”

Eventually, Kyrios Nikos, with the extra pair of hands that Lakis provided, managed to get enough savings together for both of them to travel to the undisputed capital of hearts and Greece, Athens. There, they opened shop, or stall – it is a matter of perspective – and sold their wares. How proud Lakis was of their achievement. “Sardines, lovely Sardines!” he could shout for days, if it had not been for the limitations of his throat.

“Boss?” he had started calling Kyrios Nikos. “Boss? Another coffee? Water, Boss?”

Kyrios Nikos adored him. The son he never had. The family he had missed out on having. This is why he kept asking the boy about his lodgings at Alexandrias 40.

“They treat you well, my son? The women respect you? They lower their eyes?” he asked Laki a few days after he started lodging there. Worried that his boy would be mistreated once again. Kyrios Nikos had lost trust himself in the world, especially in its women, who seemed to respect money more than they respected a soul. “We are both refugees, my son. You from your family, I from the greed of Greeks and Turks. We have to support one another. At least your  landlords are refugees themselves, they know all about pain.”

“They treat me well, Boss. I don’t need anything.” Kyrios Nikos, unable to run a shop and pay an employee at the same time, not to mention paying the refugee mafia that plagues the market, sleeps in the shop. Which means he sleeps rough. But he does not mind. After all these years he is used to it. In addition, he has made some very good friends there. Poor, but honest and hard-working, and above all with hearts like his. Big.

So when it comes to questions of love, of trust, of loyalty, Lakis turns to Kyrios Nikos. He has not met his mother since he left home, anyway. He has only a confused sense of her presence, a craving for love fused with violent repulsion. Poor Lakis. Hard as he may try, he cannot see her in his mind’ eye, he cannot feel her on his skin. “Mother,” he tries speaking to her, at night, in his small room, his candle flickering from his rocking on the floor. “Mother,” he says louder. She never answers him. He never gives up.

Is it mistrust he suffers from? Is it withheld love? And if so, is it his mother’s or his father’s withholding? or is it him born mistrustful, his squinting eye not letting him get hold of the depth of the complexity of this world? We may never find out. Though we do know he has known love and, by now, he knows fish too.

A version of this story was published in Spiked, issue 15. It is an extract from the novel Alexandrias 40: In the Shade of the Lemon Tree.