Monday, 17 August 2015

Guest post: From London to Athens - expat or in-pat?

I left Greece running, without looking back. I didn't even spare a thought on coming back. It was my little rebellion and attempt to travel the world. 

Back in 2006, there was not a hint of cloud in the horizon to suggest how bad things will turn out for Greece. A few days ago, I had my first anniversary of being, well, an in-pat, settling back in Athens and dealing with a very different Greek reality. But Greece is Greece and England is England and no matter how much I love Athens, I will always have a soft spot for London where I spent the best part of these 8 years away.

I first arrived in the UK mid-August, in an attempt to get myself acclimatized before the Master's I came to do. Fresh British summer days greeted me, a relief after the baking 40oC of Athens. There was a bit of a drizzle to add a note of originality. I was tanned and completely out of place. I was longing for that fog, cup of tea at hand, sitting behind net curtains gazing at the purple grey clouds, solving the mysteries of the new city I was about to call home; a bit like Agatha's Poirot I liked to think. Well, Poirot was on the background, on telly, and the mystical fog took a while to come, both literally and metaphorically.

When I just moved to the UK, everything was a little bit too exciting. Life seemed like snippets taken out of a film. Strangers crossing their gaze and immediately turning away. Popping red phone booths breaking through the grey. Obedient red bricks standing ageless next to each other, pubs with smoked fireplaces long out of use, a boat cutting across the Thames. The first restaurant meal was at a candle lit basement in Goodge Street. I had little to say to my companions, but share my enthusiasm about the move in the new city. Somewhat shy, somewhat overwhelmed I was content to sit back, overhearing whispers from here and there. From tube network to ordering etiquette, everything was a mystery. The outing was paired with a couple of pints at a pub round the corner. Pints? Why on earth would anyone drink out of a bucket I silently wondered. Of course, I spent the best part of that beer tasting visiting the ladies. And just before 12, everyone was swiftly running to the last tube, as if we were about to be turned into pumpkins when the clock struck midnight.

I must have done the rounds of the major museums and parks within the first 3 weeks. From waxy celebrities, to theater costumes and dinosaurs skeletons, from a trip to the moon, to Dutch still lifes and stiff royal portraits, London museums are an inexhaustible source of entertainment, especially when you are broke and as a student you can expect little more than that. There is more treasure, it comes for free in the form of lush green parks. Pockets of oxygen in the metropolis, lest it rains, they become muddy nightmares. Ideally, parks are covered with fog too, and this is how London envelops you, in a thin sheet of drizzly fog. No matter where you are coming from or where you are going, the city has this ability to integrate you so smoothly, you will not even notice it. You start building a life from scratch, but you are not alone. You join some hundreds of other people that, just like you, are not from around there. In London, you are never really an ex-pat, no one is looking at you weird or cares what language you speak. If so, people are either too polite to show or too busy to care. You are allowed to be yourself, but please do not jump that queue and do share a cup of tea. You become part of that amasing fabric of people, a Londoner.

And you join the rat race. Once settled in your 9 to 5, you realise you live for the weekend. A crude awakening, but with a bit more money in the pocket, you are officially entitled to enjoy a few more of the dazzling treats London has to offer. You go to gigs, you manage to grasp some cheap tickets for the theatre, throw in a bit of clubbing and these Indian take aways. And did I mention shopping? Of course you stop by to browse at the shops after work on the way home and end up with a loaded credit-card and things you really have no clue why you bought in the first place. All hail consumerism.

So, did I miss home? Hmm, sorry, no, I didn't. I was too busy to realise there was no sunshine. I had a couple of good old friends from Greece and the Elgin marbles agelessly waiting for me at the British museum. I could always get my dose of Greekiness at a restaurant and the ubiquitous Turkish kebab was always larking round the corner. Food was becoming a bit of an issue, but hey, one learns to cook their favourites. I was visiting often enough for supplies (yes I was loading my suitcase with olive oil and pies from grand-ma). I got a chance to recharge these batteries, too.

 So I was all nice and settled, and one day I decided to come back home. Truth is, I was not all that settled, my bum was itchy for something else. Something didn't agree with me, it felt as if London was sucking the life out of me. I was always short of time. I had to schedule a coffee with a friend across the vastness of the city 3 weeks ahead, if lucky. The frenzy of London eventually got the best of me, it pushed me to the leafy suburbs. In retrospect, I think this made things even worse. The commute took 1/3 of my day and wages. It also left this metallic taste, I was becoming a machine. What with the rolling hills, serene canals and farmers markets around. There was not a hint of the blue, blue sea around. I think I became homesick with 8 years delay.

So here I am, back in Athens, taking in the blue horizon and trying to build up that tan. I was aware I came back to a very changed Greece. You live and breathe crisis these days, it has become second nature. Over here you don't go shopping to entertain yourself as in London. You do go out for a drink, perhaps an inexpensive meal at your local, but more often you will get these beers and enjoy them at home, in good company. There is a thin veil of worry behind everybody's gaze, very neatly concealed and tacked away. Some go ahead and in very eloquent French shower politicians with all sort of cosmetics. That's in the laiki, the farmers market. Some people pass by these outbursts grinding their teeth, others nod and join in, most of them laugh. We are rich, in spirit.

My return surely raised more than a few eyebrows. People are overjoyed to have you back but are looking at you weird. There is always this question: why on earth did you come back now, of all times now? Well, thankfully they do not expect the answer, they know it is home. There is one greeting from a good old friend that stayed with me and still puts a smile on my face: So Gen, did you finally realise where paradise is?

I guess I did. Paradise has some very awkward habits I struggle to swallow though. It's these moments when car drivers whistle at you in the middle of the road, I must be too sexy for my own good. Then you have to walk in the middle of the road, the pavements have become parking slots, because let's face it, no one needs a pavement. And to top it all off, you have to fight with grandpas and grandmas for they are jumping the queue, be it at the bakery or tickets hall. No angry letter will save you. You actually learn to laugh at it, something I had admittedly forgotten.

Still, there are slightly more important things one has to deal with daily. It can all be summed up in one word: survival.  Within the chaos of the crisis, you actually see people reaching out for each other. Not just family, it's strangers becoming friends over a coffee and keeping in touch. Neighbours exchanging pots of homemade jams. The cava owner insisting on you trying every single barrel of wine he has, before you buy a humble bottle of liquor It's people actually being human. In London, you might have to dig for this sort of connection. Here, even amidst the craziness of Athens, people open up and spare a moment to listen. I have overheard the most interesting political debates in the Metro and exchanged the most delicious tips on wild greens with a grocers and two grand-mas whilst savouring a slice of melon at laiki. It's the little things that make Greece so special to me. Oh, and the sea breeze.

And I am going to let you in in a little secret: I am not the only one who came back to Greece. There are 3 more good friends who braved it, after being abroad for years and are getting themselves settled back home.  A few more friends left London for more exotic lands. It's by no means an easy thing to do, but not impossible. We all weighed the odds and decided to give it a go.


As for me, I have my pet project going. I get things cooking in a little blog that goes by the name Eat Yourself Greek. I love the simplicity of Greek cooking, fresh veggies and fragrant thyme. But what I like more is sharing good, honest, everyday food. So, I set up cookery workshops. You can find more about me on the blog and why not, come and share a meal. All things are best enjoyed when you share them, especially a meal.

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Most non-Greeks struggle to pronounce Eugenia Makrogianneli’s name (it’s Ev-yen-ee-a Makro-yian-el-li, in case you’re curious). She became a translator as she really wanted to help people communicate. She also wanted to travel and take photos. But instead of becoming a modern day Philleas Fog, she relocated from her native Athens to London in 2006, from where her scattered wonderings across the globe taught her one thing: people connect better through cooking.

She moved back to Athens at the height of Greece’s economic crisis in 2014. At that time, she decided to take up another craft along with that of wordsmith, and she now embraces and shares the cuisine of her homeland on her blog, http://EatYourselfGreek.com. It's also her online refuge for her Greek cooking intelligence and travel adventures.

For good or bad, Athens won her over London and she now lives in a little place between the city centre and Piraeus, from where I can get to the sea or Down Town in less than 15 minutes. 

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Everyman

I am you.

Well, obviously, I’m not. But I could be, but for an accident of birth and location.

I was cause for great celebration when I came into the world – the first-born, a boy. My father must have been grinning all over his moustache and offering cigars left, right and centre. Growing up, I was a normal boy – eating my mother’s special desserts, playing football in the streets with my friends, watching too much TV, playing too many computer games. But I worked hard at school. I went to University and got my degree. Then I got a good job as a Civil Engineer. I was someone with something to show for my efforts.

I was normal, boring even, a classic example of the aspirational middle class. Just like you, and you… and especially you.

Then ‘I’ became ‘we’. I met a girl, fell in love and married her. We now have two beautiful children – a boy and a girl – and there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for them.

Of course, every parent says that. But not every parent is forced by circumstances to prove it. We were. We still are.

At first, we thought it was a passing phase. The first protests were peaceful, sparked by the arrest of some schoolkids who had supposedly scrawled anti-Government graffiti. Stupid, yes. Excessively criminal? Not really. I didn’t really pay much attention. To be honest I was up to my ears in a special project at work and had little time or patience for the TV news droning in the corner of the lounge.

Even when the protests started spreading and becoming more general, I kept my head down, looked after my family, attended to my duties. I thought it would burn brightly but briefly, and then we would all be able to get back to our everyday lives.

That was more than four years and tens of thousands of lives ago.

Since then, more than nine million people have fled their homes. My family is just a drop in that sea of displaced humanity.

We didn’t want to leave. I love the land where I grew up, I loved the life I had once had there, mundane though it seemed at the time. My parents are old now and unwell. If they’re still alive – I have no idea. They couldn’t leave, and even if they could, I’m sure they wouldn’t. My father is probably the most stubborn man ever born and my mother would never leave his side. So, now there is no-one to pass on the secret family recipe for the best honey and almond cake in the world.

But as the fighting got fiercer, work dried up and the schools closed (some reduced to piles of rubble), every day brought home the unavoidable truth. If my children were to have a chance of a future, we would have to leave, abandoning everything we had ever worked for in exchange for…  who knew what?

So we left. Sold everything we could, mostly for a fraction of its worth, and gave the rest away to those who stayed. The children understood, and were stoic, but that didn’t stop my boy melting into a pool of hysterical tears when he had to say goodbye to his pet rabbit. For three days, he sat red-eyed and tear-streaked by the hutch, talking to the animal, telling it to run away to the hills around our town to escape the hungry people left behind.

 We joined a convoy heading westwards. At first, we crowded onto a bus ‘liberated’ from the local municipality, sometimes travelling through areas where we knew a stray bullet would bring another life to an end, sometimes driving through the night without lights for fear of attracting unwelcome attention. Then, one day, the fuel ran out and we had no choice but to continue on foot.

I have no idea how long or how far we walked. I lost track of the days, and only the dialects of the locals watching us with suspicion as we passed marked the changing places we walked through. Some watched with pity, then turned away. Others offered a smile and maybe a bottle of water or a plate of food for the children. Once, we reached a camp with tents that stretched as far as the eye could see. We stopped, were fed, and a man with tears brimming in his exhausted blue eyes tried to explain that there was no room for us. His Arabic was dreadful, but I managed to remember enough of my schoolboy French and English to thank him anyway.

One of our group, a University lecturer before he fell foul of the authorities, said he had heard that if we could get to the coast, we could find people willing to get us across the Mediterranean and the promise of safety. For a price. But who wouldn’t give everything they have to make sure their kids are safe?

So we carried on walking. For days, I forget how many. Until one afternoon, a cry from the front made us look up to see a bright blue something sparkling on the horizon. The sea. Our pace picked up and by evening we had reached the coast, and had taken off our battered shoes to paddle in the waves lapping at the shore.

We set up camp as well as we could in a car park near the beach. After the initial excitement of reaching the sea, the children settled back into their somber, silent games of make-believe before surrendering to sleep at their mother’s side. Somewhere in the middle of the camp, we heard the heart-wrenching keening of a women. A glimpse from my wife told me it was probably the young widow who had been struggling to nurse her sickly new-born throughout the trip, as her desperate hope was snuffed out with her child’s life.

In the morning, a man arrived in a jeep. He and his helpers went from family to family, explaining that they could get us to Europe. We unpicked the cash sewn into our clothes and handed it over for the promise of life jackets and a place on a boat for us all the next day. They also demanded our papers. Meekly, we obeyed. We could nothing else, given the rifles they carried. I doubted we’d ever seen them again.

To my surprise, we did. They arrived early the next day with a flotilla of trucks to take us to the ship waiting for us at the port. But when we arrived, the ‘port’ was an abandoned wooden jetty held up by rusting iron legs and the ‘ship’ was an open boat that looked like a large dhow. Surely that wasn’t what was going to get us across the Mediterranean? one of the women asked. But it was, and we were piled aboard.

I had read about sea-sickness before but nothing had prepared me for the reality. I thought I was tough. I thought that I had been through the worst but those days at sea were like nothing I’d ever known. The constant rolling and pitching. Feeling my stomach shift to my throat with every lurch of the boat. Losing the horizon. Consoling the kids in between heaving over the side. The constant thirst. The raw scrape of sea water in our clothes against our skin.

Then, as dawn broke, a shout of triumph. Ahead was an island. A big one, its coast laced by beaches and little towns with white-painted houses. The edge of Europe. Our destination, our salvation.

To my surprise, we were steered away from the pretty fishing port I could see to the west and taken to a deserted beach where we landed and were told to get out.

Eyed smudged with nausea and lack of sleep opened wide at the sensation of standing on solid ground again after so many days at sea. Some couldn’t stand at first. I had to hold my daughter’s hand as we scrambled ashore. She was disorientated, disheveled, scared. But we had arrived. We had survived.

We walked up the beach and sat in the shade of the trees that fringed it. Beyond was a road, and after a couple of hours’ rest, we decided to walk westwards to the village we had seen.

So, that’s how I came to be here, on this island, trying to explain in my broken English to an over-stretched policemen with an equally halting grasp of the language why we have no papers.

He says I have no proof of who I am. That I could be a terrorist come to infect and obliterate his society. I tell him I am just a man, a husband, a father. To look at, we are the same. With our dark eyes and light olive tinged skin, we could be cousins.


I tell him: “I am you”.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Between

A regular soft beep from across the room. The sharp tang of antiseptic playing with the fine hairs in my nostrils. The starched weight of fresh linen draped over me. Bright unforgiving light hurting my eyes. The click of efficient heels on linoleum. The distant ringing of a ‘phone somewhere down the hall.

I know where I am, even if I’m not quite clear on the details of why and how I got here.

And yet, somehow I don’t feel here. I feel separate, distant, like I’m stuck somewhere between this reality and an unknown something else.

I remember the pale scared look on my grandson’s face when I tried to tell him something this morning. Something that made perfect sense inside my head, but must have sounded like the ramblings of a deranged space alien to him, judging from the look on his face.

I remember shouts and concerned neighbours crowding round, fussing over me, urging me to lie down and not be scared. I remember wondering why on earth they thought I was scared and getting irate at their refusal to l heed my pleas to leave me alone and stop faffing about.

I remember a flash of white pain, followed by a wave of irritation when my hand refused to do as it was told and just hung there, useless, like a lump of putty.

I remember flashing blue lights, strong men with kind voices.

But I can’t remember what that thing sitting on the table next to me is called. The thing where they put water to drink. I wish I could remember, because I really want to tell my daughter – sitting silent and red-eyed next to the bed – that I’m thirsty.

I wish I could remember my name.

I open my mouth to ask for a drink, but meaningless moans and grunts tumble out. I feel like I’m wrapped tightly in a membrane, unable to move or speak, yet seeing everything, understanding everything. Caught between one world and another.

Maybe that’s what it is.

I’ll tell you what else it is – boring, and frustrating as hell, that’s what.

I want to wave my arms around, scream and shout, break through this barrier of unable that’s wrapped itself around me, let them know that I’m still in here.

“Hush, Mum,” my daughter says, stroking my hand. “Everything’s going to be alright. You’re a little poorly, but the doctors are going to fix you up. Don’t upset yourself.”

I look at her and I’m sure she can see in my eyes that I know she doesn’t believe what she’s saying. That she fears the worse and thinks that the truth would finish me off. She’s wrong. I’m not going anywhere without a fight. I’ve got too many things that still need taking care of before I’m done.

For a start, there’s Him Indoors. After so many years, he can’t be expected to take care of himself, make sure he takes his tablets on time, eat properly, go to bed when he should, lock up at night.  Who’s going to look after him if I don’t?

A tired-eyed nurses bustles in, checks my chart, casts an eye at the drip standing like a sentry next to the bed. Drip-drip-drip, the flow of whatever it is they’ve got me on to keep me alive is as steady as the low beeping from the machines.

I try to reach out, to touch her hand, thank her. But the unseeable membrane trapping me inside myself allows nothing more than a twitch of my hand, an incomprehensible slur and a desperate widening of my eyes as I strain to pass a word and get past this verbal constipation.

“Try to relax, Mary dear,” she says firmly, gently guiding my hand back to the sheet. “Doctor will be round in a while, and then we’ll get a better idea of how we’re going to get you back on your feet again.”

Inside, I’m seething. 
At being spoken to like an idiot child. 
At not being able to tell her I’m an adult. 
At the cruel twist of fate that has landed me between these asphyxiating sheets and my daughter exhausted and tearful in the chair next to me. 
At having all control wrenched from my now useless hands.

But at least I now know my name again.

A flurry in the air announces the arrival of the doctor, accompanied by a gaggle of medical students that don’t look much older or less scared than my grandson. Steely haired, and with eyes to match, the doctor scans the chart at the end of my bed and describes my case – a depressingly routine case – to his proteg├ęs, then asks for their prognosis.

“It’s good sign that the patient survived the initial stroke,” pipes up one. “But the danger remains that more will follow. The first 72 hours are critical.”

So, that’s where I am. Somewhere between.

Somewhere between the here and the hereafter.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Sunshine

George Apollonakis was a troubled man.

He sat at his desk, idly clicking his antique ballpoint as he considered the numbers dancing on the display floating in the air before his eyes. A frown played on his heavy Greek brow.

Profits were down.  Way, way down. Was he looking at the beginning of the end of the Midas Industries success story? The downward spiral that would reduce the world’s first multi-trillion dollar solar capture dynasty to a family of mere billionaires?

He stood up, stretched and strolled over to the panoramic window. He stepped lightly on a button on the floor and squinted as the darkened glass lightened to reveal the view of Ierapetra stretching out below him. One of the world’s sunniest spots, with more than 3,100 hours of pure sunshine every year, the historic city on the southern coast of Crete was now hidden beneath an umbrella of millions of solar panels shimmering in the heat haze.    

Apollonakis glanced at his grandfather, Papou George, frowning down in glorious colour from his portrait on the wall. A remote, mostly absent but all powerful figure rarely seen but always felt throughout his childhood. A man who sacrificed familial warmth on the altar of family wealth to pull triumph from the jaws of the Great Greek Depression of the 2010s.

What would he think of the downward path now showing up on all the company’s profit graphs? Not too kindly, Apollonakis mused. Having emerged from the ruins of a crumbling economy with a monopoly on the technology that would make Crete the world’s biggest growth market, Papou George had not been one to forgive mediocrity easily.

A mere half-century after Europe’s punitive protectionist policies had priced the disgraced Greece out of the economic playground, cutting off the lifeline for the Apollonakis family’s  moderately successful agri-business, its founder’s grandson was regularly touted as the world’s richest man, though if truth be known no-one knew just how much he had.

That could be about to change. Across the board, business was taking a hit. And once again, Europe was at the root of the problem - in particular, those trouble-making, sun-starved inhabitants to the north.

Funny that the same Europe that had been the catalyst for the rise of Midas Industries would be the first to relax its trading terms the minute pollution and climate change parked a permanent cloud over the powerhouses of the first industrial revolution. The French wine sector had collapsed, fields of solar panels were abandoned on German mountainsides, rates of Seasonal Affective Disorder had soared in the Baltic, suicide rates tripled even among the stoic Scandinavians, Vitamin D deficiency sky-rocketed in Britain’s colonial communities whose DNA was ill equipped for 360 days of rain a year. Ideal conditions for an enterprising Greek businessman with easy access to the sun and the smarts to secure a watertight patent on technology that went beyond converting solar rays to electricity, to enable sunshine to be captured, contained and transported in a range of forms to whoever was willing and able to pay the price.

But now a dent was appearing in the Midas Industries fortunes. The first chinks its armour. Sales were down across the board. Bookings for holodeck suite holidays fueled by bottled sunshine enriched with ozone extracted from the Libyan Sea were a shocking 23% down from last year. Developments in new wind, wave and refuse-generated energy had eaten into sales of solar power cells. Medical scares about growing cancer cases amongst the S.A.D. crowd treated in solar suites were keeping them away in their droves. And the authentic food movement was chomping away at profits of bottled sun-fed crops.

Overall, he was looking at a 47% drop in revenues. At this rate, the Apollonakis family fortune would be wiped out in a few short years. Something had to be done to stop the rot. Some new application to inject new life into the business.

He knew what he had to do. The one business area that had explored but never developed. It was a bold step, a controversial one, but the only one that could protect profits.

Redirecting the fixed orbit satellites intensifying the sun’s rays on farms in Crete, Rhodes, the Sahara and Nevada, like a giant magnifying glass, would take quite some doing. Not least, it would take some considerable leverage to persuade the scientists - but even they had their price didn’t they? The politicians would be easier. They always were. And once the new tool in man’s oldest game was ready, there should be no shortage of demand. The Water Wars raging in the Middle East and Central Asia; continuing Holy conflict across the globe as the pious killed millions in a race to moral superiority; the scramble for domination of the Poles.

It was just a matter of picking the right side, the highest bidder.


Apollonakis sighed, loosened his tie and shrugged off his shirt. Slipping on UV-blocking sunglasses, he opened a door and stepped out onto the balcony baking in 50 degrees of midday heat. Sweat pricked at his scalp, heat burrowed into his skin, promising painful burns. But he was determined, just one more time, to enjoy the sunshine like he had as a boy – before it became a weapon of mass destruction.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Savage

The tribe is everything.

Protecting our kinsfolk. Preserving our hunting grounds. Ensuring that our children, and our children’s children, will hold sway over our ancestral lands.

We don’t do what we want to do - we do what we have to. To survive.

Sometimes it demands more of us than we think we’ve got to give. That we do things that might make us flinch in horror. But survival is hard, and if you can’t do what is necessary, you’re left behind.

Those left behind are no longer with us. They are the other.

I knew I belonged from early on. Initiation was no ordeal. It was a liberation.

The old man was an aberration, a stain on our society. He deserved what he got for his filth, his unnaturalness. His eyes snapped open in shock as the first blow of club came down. He’d doubted a boy of fifteen could do it, that I was man enough.

He was wrong. I was strong, despite what he’d done to me. With every blow, I grew into the man I was destined to be, and his cries grew weaker, gradually trailing off to a mewing, puking whimper and pathetic pleas for mercy through snot and blood and swollen bruises.

I emerged pure, clean, like a filthy canker had been cut away by the sharpest of knives. I was reborn into the tribe, which in turn had been cleansed by my act.

I joined the elite. The chosen.

Tonight, we’re ready once again to do battle. To fight for our tribe, our purity, our survival.

We stand, armed with clubs and united in our devotion. The chief’s words harden our resolve. We’re ready. The enemy is as strong and determined as we are, but they do not have right or history on their side. We do. Our chants echo the heartbeat of the tribe we are fighting to protect. The time has come.

As we make our charge, our battle cry meets the howls of our foes. A chemical sting hits my nostrils. Glass breaks, heat flashes, smoke bursts and blurs my view of the Square. We continue undeterred.


We are the tribe, and the tribe is everything. 

Friday, 17 July 2015

Mannequin

Photo courtesy of Lorraine Margaret.
Barbara Millicent Roberts wriggled her toes into her high heels, smoothed her pencil skirt over her slim hips and leaned into the hallway mirror to reapply her lipstick. Squinting at her reflection, she smoothed an arched eyebrow and gave a self-satisfied smile.

“Not bad for an old gal,” she murmured in a sassy but still respectable mid-Western drawl.

Though she’d never confess her age or give in to the demands for comfort her body made as the years went by, she couldn’t help thinking back to her New York debut as a teen model back in 1959. What a knock-out she’d been, with her bouffant hair, chevron striped bathing suite and high heeled mules for poolside elegance. She still was, she noted with pride. No sensible shoes or baggy trouser suits for her, thank you very much.

Mincing into her all-pink vanity suite (nothing so pedestrian as a bathroom), she stooped to place the tell-tale Tena packaging and tube of varicose vein cream at the very back of the cupboard, far beyond where Ken’s prying but increasingly myopic eyes would reach.  A tress of platinum blond hair escaped its bobby pin as she stood up, but she decided to leave it untamed, to give her a gamine look she knew men loved so.

Ken liked to find her looking ‘natural’ when he got home after a long day on the golf course.

He also expected a perma-grin and smooth forehead on the face of his loving wife of all these years. Fortunately, Barb had that taken care of – thanks to monthly visits to that nice man down town with the syringes. A frozen expression of pleasantry was a small price to pay, wasn’t it?

A white Angora cat twirled figures-of-eight round her elegant ankles as she entered the all-American, fully equipped kitchen. Barb opened the door to the garden but was met with a malicious stare from the feline. She got the message, opened a tin of tuna and scooped it into the bowl on the floor. As she did so, a discreet ladder ran unfelt up the leg of her pantyhose.

Time to prepare dinner. Ken liked his meals to be ready on the table when he walked through the door. Barbara tied a frilled apron round her neat waist, smoothed the material against her heaving (yet strangely still pert) bosom and opened the door to the freezer. Tuna casserole or chicken pot pie? Running a manicured index finger along the spines of the neatly stacked TV dinner boxes, she counted how many were left of each tasty selection (wouldn’t do to give her man the same meal two days running, would it now?). Tuna casserole it was then. With just the merest of tremours, she removed the tray from its packaging, delicately pierced its membrane and placed it reverently in the microwave, ready to zap when she got the call that Ken was on his way home.

Meanwhile, it was time to gather in the washing from the line in the back yard. She sighed as she spotted her neighbor, Crazy June, sitting in her sun lounger with a scandalous Long Island Tea in her hand. With her shapeless shorts, ludicrous sunhat, and weather-beaten wrinkles, June was everything Barbara tried so hard not to be. And yet, she always had a glint of mischief in her eye and a big grin on her face. And she was always trying to rope Barb into some escapade which would certainly chip her nail polish.

Plastering a plastic smile on her lips, she gathered her laundry basket and tippy-toed out into the yard. The clack of her heels against the crazy paving betrayed her presence and June looked up from her book.

“Hey, Barbie girl,” she cawed, leaping up and galloping to her open kitchen door. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

She emerged with a second tall glass of the lethal amber liquid tinkling with ice and handed it over the picket fence.

“There’s a Woodstock Reunion at the Seniors’ Club in a while. How about you and me dig out our old love beads and hit the scene?”

Barb managed to hide her sneer of distaste at the sight of June’s greying brassiere strap as her too-big t-shirt slipped off her shoulder. She smiled sweetly and took a sip from the glass, hiding a shudder as the strong taste of alcohol hit her palate like a block of concrete wrapped in a slice of lemon. She remembered the late ‘60s – she still had the psychedelically-patterned bell bottomed and teetering platforms to show for it – but had no desire to re-visit those days. June, on the other hand, probably didn’t remember much of them at all.

“I don’t think so, June,” she said. “Ken will be home soon and you know he likes us to spend our evenings at home.”

She turned smartly, and headed towards the perfectly hung laundry now dry on the line. In her haste to escape her friendly but slovenly neighbour she snagged her skirt on a rose bush (pink, of course). Gathering in the linen, she smiled coldly, took her drink with a promise to wash and return the glass and headed inside.

The phone was ringing. It was Ken. Still at the golf club. He’d run into an old friend and wouldn’t be coming home til late.

“Don’t wait up, honey,” he cooed down the line. “You need your beauty sleep.”

That was it. Five innocent words. But words that made the usually rose-tinted Barb see red.

She downed her drink in one swig, swiped an angry tear from her immaculately made-up eye, took the tuna casserole from the microwave, dumped it on the floor and stormed upstairs. Five minutes later she came down, resplendent in bell bottoms and love beads, and called out the kitchen door.

“June! I’ve changed my mind. Let’s go, sister.”

But not before she took her pink ballpoint and wrote a note to Ken in looping letters on the message pad on the refrigerator:

Dear Ken,

Your dinner’s in the cat, and I’m finally having a life.
If you have a problem, you can kiss my plastic behind.

Barbie.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Barbara Millicent Roberts was last seen getting into a camper van with a Joe Cocker lookalike after her on-stage Joplin homage at the West Sweetings Seniors’ Centre. If anyone knows of her whereabouts, please call Ken Roberts on the Pink Alert hotline, sponsored by Mattel, on 555-……

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Gargoyle

From here, I can see the whole city spread out before me like an ant’s nest stamped open by an angry boot. 

Tiny figures scutter to and fro below – hungry for power, thirsty for revenge, or just trying to reach the end of their day in one piece. Some happy, some hungry, some in despair, some plotting - and all utterly unaware of my existence.

From my position high above the Square, I watch them, observe them, feed off them.

It’s what I - and my kind - have always done.

Once, our grinning grimaces could only be found high on the spires of churches – supposedly as a momento mori that the wages of sin were death, and worse in the ever after. But we’re living in an increasingly secular world, so we had to branch out to get our sustenance.  

Now, we grace the citadels of capitalism and churches devoted to greed and consumption. The pickings are much richer.

From my spot atop the city’s most exclusive hotel, I survey the big house where lawmakers talk endlessly, stage petty theatrics and issue edicts that most of them will never obey. 

The building itself is of no interest to me. Its energy is dulled by a miasma of damp, flaccid words floating over its roof.

But the Square in front of it, that’s a different matter. Emotion bounces off it like a manic pinball machine, like the ones I spent hours playing during my misspent youth. Before I became.

Sometimes, when music or laughter fills the air, my clawed feet shrink back and connect with the ground, like they did back them, long decades ago. Other times, the red mist of outrage takes my transformation one step further.

Last night was a good night. Anger was already buzzing in the air as the Square filled with the disillusioned carrying home-made banners and chanting their frustration like a mantra. I licked my stiffening lips in anticipation.

A rush of excitement as a group of black-clad men with flags on suspiciously thick flagpoles marched in. A shift in the air, like a haze of hate, hit me from the street below, bringing with it the metallic scent of violence. My nostrils twitched, and I felt a flutter beneath my bent-over shoulder blades.

A new scent joined the cocktail. A blaze of light and heat exploded at the feet of armoured police snaking their way across the Square.  My spirits soared as the fires of hostility burned brightly and angrily. And although their flames and anger dissipated after a while, it was not before I had drunk my fill and grown stronger than before.

Yes, last night had been a good night. I had fed well. 

A few more nights like that, and I could finally be strong enough to spread my leathery wings, release my grip on the marble precipice and break free.

Just a few more nights…