by Nena Filousi
As published in Volume 8, NO 4, Dec. 2011
I won’t deny it. He’s always been like that: hung-up and a mythomaniac, as if on account of my grandfather’s nickname. My mother used to recount how in the early ‘60s her father-in-law bought a pick-up truck and garnered it with a painted metallic sign, the very same that has left an indelible mark on our clan: The King. That’s right, somewhere between ’61-’62, after he had stopped working for the British, not earlier. But my father had been a chump long before that.
He was the uncontested prince of late grandma Agathe. When my father was a child, his family owned both money and land, together with a large plot and forty olive trees. Each time she would bathe him, when she’d pour the last bucket of water over him, she’d gesture the sign of the cross and declare with a voice drenched in yearning: “If you walk on the path of Christ you are bound to become a king”. It didn’t take long for the kid to take her word for it.
Of course, grandma didn’t stop there. My mother said that during and after the great war, when every other kid walked around barefoot, my father had black patent leather shoes and imported wool socks. A compassionate child, he felt sorry for the neighborhood kids and every Sunday afternoon, he would take a pile of sugar-pies his mother had baked and give them away, seated on the coffee-shop’s stone bench. My mother was among those kids who picked up their pie from the stone bench. “We were hungry”, she said. Perhaps it was due to the ‘soup kitchen’ my father had set up in hard times that she ended up married to him, who knows?
Along general lines and in all probability, his peers did not take him that seriously because, even though he distributed pies and halvah and gave away the woollies he had outgrown, the look on his face has always been distant, princely, noble. Despite its cuteness, this nobility was also nerve-wracking and of course, he never got rid of it. Not even after they had to sell everything they owned to save my mother from the bad disease, not even after he had bet and lost a string of title deeds. Deep down he always thought he was of royal descent.
My grandfather’s land was the largest and most fertile in the area. He was the indisputable king of fruit and horticulture, so nobody so much as flinched when he hung the aforementioned label on his white truck. In fact, after they’d grown familiar with the car’s sound, they’d yell from afar: “Here comes the King!”
I remember that truck. It opened sideways revealing craters full of tomatoes, oranges, onions, potatoes and herbs. Depending on the season, a different smell would prevail, the scent of the soil or tangerine, the green dew of the cabbage or sour tomato. He’d slice a water melon in half and if by chance it wasn’t red inside, he’d pick up another one to give to the customer. And so my grandfather was to gradually become rich by his own labor. He bought land and planted various crops, the land bore fruit, the crop brought him money and money was brazenly spent by his children.
My father, the youngest of his two sons, carried out many charitable deeds but he never deigned to soil his hands with dirt. His fingers were white, plump and tender. His hands would caress the green felt in coffee-shops or gaming rooms in the region and the capital. Queens, jacks and kings slipped between his soft fingers at all times.
Grandfather never relied on his second son. No matter how much money the son asked for, the father obliged. And so from as early as back then, the ladies’ favorite prince owned a Norton motorcycle and a camera with a leather case and sat at café-chantants or restaurants frequented by foreigners. Even though he never went to college, he could conduct a conversation with both British and French customers while the industrialists of the time entrusted their ledgers to him.
Nevertheless, my grandfather the King was a solemn-looking man. Everyone respected him for he was honest and strong. At the same time, they all felt slightly sorry for him because his first-born was hard-working but unsociable and his youngest son was handsome but a gambler.
Not that my father is lazy. He’s just… a prince! In just about everything. Taking a bath becomes a whole ritual. His plate is served with care whether we have lentils, boiled potato or lamb, and always with a glass of wine, a starched napkin and fresh bread. He is an all-around gentleman; an upstanding man with delicate manners, proud posture and a royal air about him – always.
Of course lately he’s pushed the envelope too far as if he’s set his mind – he and Eugenoula too – on driving me crazy. And they will too, if they don’t kill me first… I can just see me departing this life just like my mum. These two act like a pair of cinema divas that have exterminated every other actor in order to take the lead. And once I’m gone too, our clan will have lost its last prudent member and everybody will say, here comes the king’s nut-clan!
On top of it, there’s no one there to at least listen and console me, since finding justice is just out of the question and I know it. I work like a dog just to be able to support this whim along with a flamboyant sister and a father who is perceived by everyone as a nutcase. Christ, am I not one of your creatures too? Don’t I need to be loved, bear children, attend weddings, go out with my husband?
In all fairness to her, Eugenoula did make an effort. For some time she got a job spraying away at anyone who stepped inside the supermarket – a promotion activity they called it. And then, owing to her beauty, they had her appear in a few advertisements for plates, slimming creams and microwave-friendly plastics that aired on third-rate TV channels. Needless to say her first client has always been me. I even bought two porcelain tableware sets, one for daily use and the other for special occasions – What am I going to do with them, I yelled at her, have you seen anyone visit us lately? But no, you should, she insisted and so I bought them. I was supporting her, I guess, in the hope that she’d stick to a job.
But Eugenoula is always penniless because beauty comes at a dear price. And indeed nature has endowed her with succulence and sweetness, but she has to wax often and scrub away like a fish at least once a month. Plus having a couple of lifting and uplifting facials. Why someone as gorgeous as she would need facials, is beyond me. Add to that her visits to cafeterias, her club subscription, nights out at music halls, traveling, shopping… because “I know I’m attractive but I want to attract the perfect man”, she’d always say. As for that, my nutty sister has always had good taste in men. So far she’s dated a philologist, a reporter… she’s even had an affair with a politician. I could never grasp what on earth these deep thinkers saw in her and deigned to talk to her. I mean, they must have talked too, right? Who can make out like forever?
But lately she’s cut down her expense account, not because she’s out of work but because she dresses up fit to kill and goes to meet this sixty-year old intellectual who completely fulfills her, or so she says, with his experience and wisdom. Don’t ask me what this senile gets from her or what this young, beautiful woman who is throbbing with life and power sees in him. I mean, why does she even bother to get all dolled up? Had she gone straight out of bed, would he have said she was not good enough for him? The satyr!
– He’s an old dandy, she asserts with a proud nod of the head.
– He’s not old, he’s ancient! I yell from the sink and bang on the plates to protest. He’s ancient, he’s ante-war!
No, she retorts, he’s a nobleman with delicate manners and a huge brain. No argument there, I mean you should see the size of this man’s head. Numerous have been the times I have seen him, always from a distance; but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to recall his face as a whole. I bring to mind his eyes, small and slightly slit, his pout, plump and slightly red, his grayish mustache. He’s a bit chubby, tallish, with a rather forward-bending body.
Eugenoula insists he’s handsome; alright, let’s say he is. But how is it going to be? Will he ever leave his rich wife for my ill-fated sister? Will he ever stir his smooth, organized life for a vagabond like Eugenoula? This man who chastises just about everyone on camera, a man with numerous acquaintances, a father and a grandfather no less? Who is known by MPs and mayors alike? No way! This is not how things turn out in real life.
I told her so. She looked at me with a calm, solemn gaze.
– I know. But I’m perfectly happy with what I get.
And she went on with her make-up. By then I was feeling sick to my stomach. First her and then my father they have tied my gut into a knot! The two of them go out, have fun, meet people, chat with them, Eugenia flirts, father orates. As for me, I live between my house, my job and the supermarket. Isn’t there any pity left for me? What is more, I’m called upon to buoy their spirits whenever they feel “down” in the words of Ms Thaleia from the morning show.
Father is very sociable too, God forbid! He sits in the coffee-shop amongst leftists and socialists and goes on about the capital, the State and authority. He then joins the rightists and praises the nation’s struggles. In other words, whatever springs to mind, from 1912 to 1944 and so on and so forth. Once he is riled up with his royal descent, he surges ahead and there’s no stopping him. On occasion, if he realizes he’s being laughed at or merely ignored, he gets up and leaves, to come home tired with loss of appetite.
– I’m going to lie down for a while, he says and sleeps till five.
My heart goes out to him. Now and then, when I’m a bundle of nerves, I’m tempted to call and ask them to get him out of here because I can’t stand the sight of him anymore… but I never do. And when I’m calm I look at him and say, there’s nothing wrong with the man. He just thinks he’s of royal descent, so what? Scores of people who think they are someone they are not walk about free. Why should my father be institutionalized? After all, he communicates just fine; goes shopping, reads the paper, is very polite. No, no way I can do this to my father.
Besides, during those summer nights when I stay out late on the balcony, I make up all sorts of stories about my blueblood parent and “wouldn’t it be nice to have the king come to me one day in search of his distant relative and demand I relocate to the palace with him? Wait a minute. He’d probably invite my sister to live with him because she’s both beautiful and lively. As for me, he’d profess I was conceived of a different bloodline. In the meantime, I would serve him in my special occasion tableware, the Bavarian one, after having firstly lost seven kilos thanks to creams and cellophanes, courtesy of Eugenoula.
My God, what’s wrong with me? Am I for real? I’ve turned forty and I’m still dreaming. In fact, sometimes I’m afraid lest I am just like them – my poor father and my sister the nutcase.
So to speak nutcase, because I’ll have you know Eugenoula is a very smart kid. Cunning,too. She’s not your average ingénue to be entangled in the tentacles of the first dirty old man. She’s actually very competent in reading people and their intentions, telling apart the jerks from the snakes, discerning intuitively – or so she says– truth or guile in other people’s words.
Now, in the case of my own matchmaking opportunity, I don’t know if it was ruined on account of her intuition or if she had merely been looking out for her best interests. In a nutshell, Eugenoula declared that the would-be groom was shoddy without so much as looking at him and that the particular case wreaked of mold, that’s what she said: they were allegedly trying to off-load the man on me and have me tend to him in his old age. He was the brother of an old classmate I had last seen in ’83, but we bumped into each other recently (“She lives on the other side of the city, what was she doing at your bus stop?” Eugenoula wouldn’t let it go) and she seemed very happy to see me; surprised, too because I hadn’t changed one bit. That’s what she said. I’m struggling to recall how she was at the time.
Alcestis (the Greek teacher at school was adamant about the suffix –is) had a patently obvious problem with a few extra kilos and a few needless pimples but during the three years we’d spent in the same class never once was her morale affected by either of them; on the contrary. She was always resourceful and militant. As for her brother, she had nothing but the kindest words to say about him. He came equipped with a high-paying job, his own car and a generous nature. “The only thing that hurts us”, she said, “is his failed marriage”, that ended because of her sister-in-law who apparently was a bitch and couldn’t care less about housekeeping.
– Look out! Eugenia exclaimed with an air of medium-psychologist. Look out, it’s a trap! And her eyes darkened.
That was it. I got cold feet. Forget it, I entreated Alcestis, I can’t be bothered now; but she wouldn’t let go. Her persistence made me suspect the worst. I mean, come on. I’m no catch. Why is she so hung-up on tying me to her brother? Eugenoula is right. It has to be a trap. Are they looking for a victim? Am I to become the alibi for a dirty job?
After all, my little sister had clued me in more than once!
– Get rid of that look on your face! Your silly mug is giving you away. Snap out of it! You are a victim, an easy target; it is written across your forehead!
Right… How exactly am I supposed to snap out of it, Eugenoula? I mean, here I am, struggling to cope with insanity in the family and my stagnant passions. On the one hand, our royal descent and on the other hand you, a woman all over the place! I live in constant schizophrenia. How can I take one breath just for me? Every now and then something new comes up. If it’s not father lodging complaints against employees in various offices for lack of respect or for unacceptable delay, it’s the fair Eugenia who cooks up affairs with married men and I’m called upon to save her from the claws of their cheated wives!
I honestly don’t think there’s a clan that’s more deranged than ours. You see, apart from our individual madness there’s this general hang-up with national affairs, a fascination that’s almost innate. Think of nation-wise perversion.
I remember what we’d been through in ’71 when mother came close to dying, not because she was called to the station for raving against them but because father never approved of her ideas and that made her feel lonely. That too, I mean.
This is how it is. Kings sustain the status quo. Our mother was beautiful. If cancer hadn’t eaten her away, she could have had anyone she liked, down to her old age. She was that graceful. But she’d never once wanted anyone else, never longed for another man. Her biggest concern was the country and one’s dignity, that’s what she said. The men of her generation were mostly leftists, and at the time leftists were handsomer, with long hair and unpretentious attire. They kept you warm, opened their arms more readily than others. Whereas, according to my sister, rightists were unsightly, uncool living dead with ties. Father was jealous of our fair mother who was wooed by young and handsome leftists. Eugenoula too was always partial to lovers from the Left. Time and again she’s dated them, so much so that we’ve lost count.
As for me, I wasn’t particularly fond of Leftists. To my eyes they were grimy, full to the brim with grease and ideas. On the other hand, I remember how much support I had got from a few young communists known as knites, friends of my sister, when I found out about Kissinger and Demetrakis the Invisible and threw a fit. They were young, handsome and clean. They earnestly talked to me about various matters, in other words catechized me and merely listening to them was sufficient consolation for me. But joining the Left was beyond my powers.
Now I don’t go around throwing fits over either national or political questions. By the late 1980s I had blown all my steam. Whatever transpired from then on was nothing but a repetition, an extension. Besides, I’ve got plenty of my own matters to deal with – including most recently Eugenia’s wish to become a writer. With this in mind she stores away… experiences, she says, which she will put to use in order to help her friend the savant who’s suddenly revoked his political identity and intends to run in next year’s elections. I rest my case. The new Mercedes along with the cute little mansion in the suburbs are the perfect complement to his socialist façade, right?
Father, who I don’t know if he’s on to what goes on between his little girl and the old dandy, posits that from what he could see from the balcony, the man had a noble posture. I was waiting to hear more, perhaps something about marks of distinction, but he refrained from further comments. He only said noble and witty.
When all’s said and done, my sister had no right overstepping me on this. I was supposed to be a writer, not her. Besides, what’s a writer but someone who overflows with regrets and sits somewhere in the back watching those who live upfront? Well, that’s me. Eugenoula thrives on her escapades and I write them down. At least that’s how it was supposed to be; only I was unlucky again. She said it first!
Not that Eugenoula will ever become a writer! For some time father too wrote poems about the moon and wishes (honest to God, he would discern wishes inside the moon) until my mother became ill and died and with her poetry withered too. Writing, lady, requires devotion! When have you ever sat your ass down to think? On the other hand, come to think about it, if she becomes a writer, will she write about me or will she only draw her themes from her erotic storage?