Chapter 1
from Crossroads ("I Megali Plateia")
By Nikos Bakolas

No one ever knew, no one could, no one heard whether Fotis remembered his mother as he struggled in the high seas of the English Channel in '74. At the beginning he was clinging doggedly to a hawser on the deck, battered by the raging tempest, then later cursing in the dark, swallowing water and oil and tar, no companion beside him in the dark waves, not a voice to be heard; the sea took hold of him and he found himself tossed upwards, stunned, then lost in the depths, struggling agonizingly back up into the foam in a world that was nothing but salt and blackness, but then down once more, again and again, time after time, hour after hour, till in the end he was no longer able even to think whether he remembered how right his mother had been. For tell him she did, fifty years earlier, at home on the island, that "you can't swallow the whole sea but the sea can swallow you" - and it was happening right now, the waters gaped like a mouth beneath him, sucked him down.

His mother had told him, she'd foreseen it from the very first time he realised he could walk, could step over the threshold and wander off, when he seized the neighbour's two horses (one was enormous, a veritable wild beast) and rode them away towards the sea while his father foamed at the mouth and yelled, "Grab that pirate." Later on they lost him again one evening and set out to search on the mountains, calling "Fotis, Fotis, you little bastard", and only his mother took the lane leading in the other direction which came out onto the mole, and there she found him with the tide lapping against him, having fallen asleep as he babbled to the waves. The next day they hung him up in the olive tree, just like a criminal, and his father said, "you can stay there till the vultures find you and rip you to shreds so that we get some peace." But his grandad set him free - it was late noon by then, the others were all in the fields or in the village - and gave him a small coin: "here," he said, "lift Sultana's skirts for me" so that the old man could get a glimpse of her white thighs, this was what he longed for, to see them and groan; she wouldn't stand still for him and anyway neither could he lift her skirts himself - for years he hadn't been able to do anything except just feast on her with his eyes, a widow, fortyish, dark and wild.

However this might be, Fotis couldn't turn his back on the sea its lure held him in thrall; come daybreak, come dusk, he was always to be found down on the shore, even during school hours - whereupon the neighbours would go running to his father laughing and tell their friend, "Fotis takes his book-learning measured in spoonfuls, here, take his exercise books, his pencils" which they had found by chance, the baker behind his loaves, the greengrocer amidst his melons, nothing but blank pages, crumpled and sopping wet.1 Never once did Fotis hate or fear the sea, not even that evening when it rose and threw the whole household into confusion, his mother weeping, the neighbours lamenting that "now you will all be poor starving orphans", eight mouths to be fed - no, he didn't hate the sea, not even the night when they found his father butchered and drowned on the seashore and everyone said, "the Turks", for in truth this soul now departed had been reckless and his blows had fallen heavy on anyone in range, Christian and Turk alike - though on the latter more frequently. Fotis stood beside his brothers (together with their sisters they were seven in all), he stood in silence in a dark corner and gazed sullenly at the stocky corpse which they'd laid out on the kitchen table covered only by a clean white sheet: wet patches revealed the form of his father's body and the soles of his feet were uncovered, huge, dripping.

He did not hate the sea, he did not cry, not even when they took the boat, his mother all in black with six of her children beside her (for her little Fotis had wandered off), her gaze blank and lost as if on purpose, as if to avoid seeing as first the coast and then the dark mauve-coloured hill with the tower of the fairy tale princess and the trees on it faded from view, as even the smell of the house faded and the scent of the olive grove which belonged to the landowner, yet they loved it. Fotis didn't hate the sea, he just looked at it in puzzlement, a little way off from the others as he hung from the gunwales, though by now the ship was under way and the waves were getting bigger, sometimes lead-coloured, sometimes foaming, so that you felt a chill down your spine and said, "if I could only snuggle down at her feet and get warm" -

well, this was the sort of thing his sisters said, not he: for he was always seduced or spurred on by the sea so that in the end everyone said, "the sea got him" but didn't grieve since they'd lost him years ago anyway and used to laugh at his exploits, his adventures, as if it all came out of a book or was something that they'd seen at the cinema.

In '57 he wrote his last letter to her, to his mother, and this not because he had a guilty conscience or forgot but because their sensitive and forever complaining Myrsine left them. And his last letter to her was yet one more promise, "I'll come home" – and everyone was afraid that he really would. By now he'd lost everything he possessed, all he had left was a mouth for swilling

Whisky and eating, for telling stories; he'd offer the moon and stars and sign himself "your loving prodigal son" as if he was joking or laughing at her, and above this signature he'd draw a bird and a wreath, eternally blossoming May, and a bleeding heart, at which they either cried or burst out laughing. In '38 he'd come back just like some prince of Araby, in a silk suit, with a claret-coloured foulard and a solid gold watch on his wrist, with an utterly magical lamp whose flame sparkled like diamonds. His sisters and brothers and brothers-in-law all gathered round the table; like a magician he drew them closer, burnt black as black by the sun of Beirut, with a Douglas Fairbanks moustache, then, unscrewing the bottom of the lamp in a single movement, spilled out diamonds and jewels onto the table, a veritable treasure: though actually it wasn't Aladdin's but Eleni's. For no matter how much is sisters hoped and licked their lips and envied, a few months later they were obliged to recognise that the blood-sucking witch had swallowed up everything, their own Fotis included, who proved to be in love to the point of simple-mindedness.2 And Christoforos, who'd known him at the Garden of Princes, said, "myself, I'd never wash her feet" - who told him about that? – but ubsequently she lost all her fortune, a certain Antypas ran through it, a notorious pimp; he left her starving in one room, her looks gone, her titivations a thing of the past, and she well nigh gave up in despair but in the end made the best of things (a fine sieve, this old art of compromise) and got together two or three of the local females and set up her own "house". This was in '42.

She managed to keep body and soul together: various doddering old devotees took care of this, as well as black marketeers and a captain from Dangoulas's security forces. From time to time Myrsine visited her - always in the morning - and they'd weep together over Fotis whom they both still loved, and when his mother left it was always with her nosebag full.

He meantime was a seaman once more, fighting on the high seas with the Allies, in the Libyan sea, then off Malta, until they shut him up behind a wire fence and he got a bit of peace and quiet. Later on, after the war, he was told the whole story; he went and found Eleni, and they both wept and made plans for future enterprises. Except that this time Fotis didn't wash her feet - he'd come to his senses - but tricked her and left her and they both went their separate ways. It was said of Eleni that she'd settled down in some hovel in Alexandria, people forgot about her, she withered away and died. And he stayed true to the sea, until that night when he struggled in the Channel with the storm and

finally the waves won, only then Myrsine wasn't there to tell him, to remind him, "don't stay out late, son, I'm scared of the cut-throats, the Italians with their razor blades." Because it was then, in '17, in Salonica, that Fotis jumped off the ship and said this is the place I've been looking for (even if he did abandon it later, fickle as he was, and preferred the sea, then later the desert, Beirut, adventure) - stories, so many stories ...

Anyway, that day when the ship arrived in Salonica the sun was setting deep crimson and everything was bathed in violet and rose pink - the seafront stretching out in a line, caiques and fishing boats everywhere, the houses a white wall with windows and balconies, sharp minarets here and there piercing the heavens like needles embroidering a picture. Gradually the crowds of people coming and going acquired feet and hats, some were in khaki but most in dark clothes and among them women like white butterflies, their skirts billowing in the breeze, and in a while you could make out their little hats, yellow and blue and bright green or whatever colour their heart desired: his own heart was already leaning from the ship in longing, ready to drink in whatever was offered, whatever it could find - eyes and lips and hair as it was to be before long, and in the end laughter and flirtations and a shawl thrown into the air. And Fotis said, "what fine people," no matter that they were arriving as strangers among strangers, as foreigners and orphans. 

But by '74 the whole family was scattered. One fragrant root-stock remained in Salonica but all the others had left for Athens - indeed one of the girls, with a husband and children of her own, had crossed the ocean and lived in Sao Paolo, while another girl had travelled even further, to the other world, her family all in black with bitter mouths and tear-stained eyes. And in the Depths of the Channel the lost, failed pirate battled in desperation With the waves with no one to hear his pleading and cursing and tears, nor any survivor to bear witness to his end or to tell whether it was as prodigal as his life - he who used to sign himself in tearful affectation as "your prodigal son" yet always forgot to enclose among the sheets of paper with their hearts and birds the ten pounds that he had set aside or promised (of his own accord) and which he remembered after he had posted the letter and was certain that there was no way of getting it back - not even if he begged; he'd put his hand into his pocket and to his surprise find the ten pounds, all forgotten and crumpled, and he vowed they were for his mother, he swore that whatever he won at dice from that fellow would be for Myrsine and for the dowry of Niki, his youngest sister who was still unmarried (goodness knows, after far too long). But no one was ever aware of his vow if he won or for whom he grieved if he lost.

And once, in the days of his affluence, with the diamonds andt he canaries and the exotic garden, his mother told him "you're heartless" - for all he ever sent them was postcards of luscious oriental girls or bedouins, or else tearful letters saying that two drunken Frenchmen had broken his ribs, that he was in pain, with no Myrsine beside him to soothe him as he lay feverish in his opulent bed and all his singing birds struck dumb. This word "heartless" stuck to him: Myrsine's daughters adopted it and it was then chanted by nephews and grandchildren - no matter how much pain Fotis had suffered from his ribs for two months and more. And Eleni it was who acted as his nurse and guardian angel; as they were beating him up she strode right into the middle in her shimmering satin dress with a glittering pistol in her hand and she shouted to them in French, just like Marlene Dietrich in a film, "hands up or I'll blow your brains out" - and that's how Fotis got off with only a couple of broken ribs - only two.

And this wasn't his last adventure by any means, nor his first, nor his greatest. In the end people called him "the adventurer", both strangers and his own family, and they made up their minds never to be surprised at anything, not even if they were told that an aristocratic lady and an expensive whore (who just happened to be called Aspasia) had come to blows over his favours in a courtyard and had torn each other's hair out like fishwives. For this too happened before he drowned, before he was in peril, long before, just when the battle of Athens was reaching its climax, in December, the time of darkness and hunger and merciless killings, when Fotis had already forgotten El Daba, telling himself that it was one of his mistakes and erasing it from his memory. But all this was lost in '74 that night when the sea raged and the waves devoured him. And when five days later a calm had fallen and they were continuing to search, nothing of the passions of prodigal Fotis was recorded or betrayed or preserved in the papers that they found, nothing in the foam of the sea, in the roaring of the ocean, nothing of his life and of his city, nothing of the tales from Baghdad, of his wealth and poverty, of his loves or of his final agony at death.

For Fotis was gone forever, the admirer of Douglas Fairbanks, the actor and lover of pantomime, player of every part there was to be played - even that of the callow bridegroom in the Jewish ghetto at Ramona. And perhaps it all began when he said "this is how my life will be." And Myrsine and his sisters had wept for him, as if he were setting out on a journey to the angels.


1 Fotis Katakouzinos or Evangelou or Psarelis (or even Sirtsis when the need arose but Dimitrios not Fotis in this case) was born in Mytilini in the year of grace 1907 and perished, as is assumed, in the shipwreck of a freighter in the middle of the English Channel in 1974. His body was never found. In 1976 the police were looking for him in Thessaloniki, supposedly as the member of a smuggling gang. In the end no trace of him was found and his file was then declared closed forever. Some of the remaining members of his family wondered, compared and calculated. In vain.

2 The police officer N.M. knew all there was to know about Fotis Psarelis or Dimitrios Sirtsis. A long time before he became world famous as a result of his handling of the Polk affair, he had helped Fotis and Eleni bring their diamonds and sovereigns from Beirut to Thessaloniki. There was a rumour that the two men were old friends; however, this was either a deliberate distortion or a lie, for "the pirate" had set off to sea and to exotic lands in 1924, as soon as he was fully fledged, and had remained almost permanently far from Greece, whereas during the same period the other man was still living in his village. The most likely thing is that the policeman - who liked presents - either mislaid or forgot (the difierence is small) some customs report. All this took place during the summer of 1938 while the country was staggering under the burden of the costs of rearmament and Alekos Kanellopoulos, Metaxas's right-hand man, was organizing repeated collections to raise money for the air force.

Επιστροφή στην προηγούμενη σελίδα