PLAYING AWAY – excerpt

by Andreas Antoniades

As published in In Focus, Vol. 9, No 3, Sept 2012

First Episode * 

“LYDIA”

Where the opening of a Greek movie in Grevena changes the life of a “slow striptease” dancer…

stripper2Lydia was not even called Lydia when she was born in a small village near Skopje thirty years ago, neither when she was a student at the elementary, high school or lyceum, not even when she graduated from the Belgrade Academy of Gymnastics with honours written on her diploma and pain in her heart for parting ways with her first great love, the gymnastics professor, a very handsome Croatian.

She took the name Lydia five years ago as she crossed the borders of her country into Greece with a fake passport she had paid for dearly to a manager of artistic ensembles, since that was the only way she could leave her war-stricken country. As a dancer!

In the first two years she worked at “Fever” just outside Kastoria, a chaotic joint with a capacity for a thousand, featuring an elevated dancing floor in the middle surrounded by tables, whilst on either side of the dancing floor huge counters accommodated those men who did not want to sit at a table. From midnight to seven in the morning, Lydia and an additional twenty girls, mostly imported ones, danced in turns, either solo or in groups. The only requirement was that she undressed slowly to the rhythm. It didn’t take her long to learn, being ever so diligent, and did so with dexterity and grace, so much so that she became one of the first names in the joint.

She left when early one night, a bit before midnight, as the girls were getting ready for the show and the waiters were settling the finishing details, an explosion was heard in the main hall and the joint was wrapped in flames. Within hours, the “Fever” was gone, leaving behind it a multitude of victims. Ten injured, five dead.

Some talked of a gas leak accident, others of a settlement of disputes, and others still of an act of vengeance on behalf of the “protector” on account of a belated delivery of his due share.

Whatever the case may be, Lydia, thankfully untouched by the fire, was left without a job not to mention without a boss, since the manager was among the dead.

The opportunity presented itself for her to disappear. Amidst the panic and turmoil of the first day, she picked up her stuff and went, contemplating either Athens or Thessaloniki.

However, the truck driver who picked her up off the highway was heading to Grevena. So she made a stop in the city for a couple of days and stayed there for three years in a row. With the broken Greek she spoke at the time, she told him that she’d love to work at a gym – whereupon she showed him her diploma – or a dance hall, or maybe a bar. The truck driver responded that two cousins of his were managing bars, the one in Makrochori, just outside Veroia, and the other in Grevena, “down the road from the pizzeria we are now”.

And because it was the early afternoon and at that time of day, at 2:00-2:30pm, the cousin would always clean up the joint, they passed by and found him doing the dishes.

The truck driver and his cousin exchanged a few words and then the latter suggested that Lydia work for a trial period of one week, as a girl providing company to patrons, nothing more, “because this is a serious joint, no tricks going on here or anything weird like that”.

And so Lydia stayed. The truck driver, who drove the same route once a week and spent the night in Grevena, fell in love with her; so did she. And so the cousin let anyone interested know that Lydia was available for “nothing more than a drink and some chitchat”.

Many men go to disreputable joints not to get laid but to pour out their hearts, half-drank, over small talk. Otherwise put, they are looking for an after midnight shrink. Lydia was more than happy to accommodate and in doing so would learn stories, either real or imaginary, from the patrons, whilst waiting for her weekly appointment with the truck driver.

In the meantime she left the cheap hotel and rented a small apartment near the central square by the City Hall, at a six-minute distance from the bar she worked at, taught herself how to speak and write Greek, nothing fancy, just the basic stuff, but above all she “acquired neighbours”. The cheese seller, the greengrocer, the guys at the pizzeria where she usually had lunch, the landlady who would invite her for a coffee in the afternoons, and not only when rent was due, the shopkeeper who would fill in the lotto coupon she played in the hope of winning and setting up a health studio – that was her neighborhood, the people keeping her company. This is how she passed her week until the truck driver would arrive on her day off – granted by the cousin without further negotiations.

Every Thursday she would put on a respected, no-cleavage, no bare-back dress, and they would go to a fine meat tavern and then to a bouzouki joint just outside the town, where they would stay until late. She admired her truck driver, especially when he would grow merry and dance the zeimbekiko as a prelude to the love he would make to her at dawn, only minutes before she would bid him farewell with her stomach tied up in a knot.

Sometimes he would appear unexpectedly, especially during the peak period of peaches, seeing that his company promoted the fruit of Imathia county to Europe and the itineraries became more frequent. He would bring her a crate or two of peaches, but he’d never stay the night. In fact, he once confessed he did it in order to check up on her, to make sure she was faithful. How elated she was! – yet didn’t say a word to him. For months on a row she would recall his image in her mind, his sneaky eyes mellowing up upon confessing his childish experiment! In the summer, they would go to Platamonas for a week and enjoy happy moments by the sea, as if extracted from an American movie.

That afternoon, when the truck driver’s cousin arrived to find her in the kitchen having coffee with her landlady, she immediately knew something had gone amiss. After all, why come here, since he would soon see her at the bar?

She left her landlady and walked into her bedroom-cum-living room with the cousin. Without so much as sitting down, even before she had time to offer him coffee, he told her in brief that the truck driver would not come next Thursday, or any Thursday for that matter; see, he had left the road in order to marry the daughter of his manager, the peach-owner in Veroia. Before he left, the cousin added that she could take the night off, relax, and “come back tomorrow, half an hour early, and we’ll talk things out”.

She cried. Oh, how she cried! She cried as much as she did when she left her village outside Skopje, leaving behind her parents and friends lost in the war.

She spent the whole night awake, zapping through the channels without stopping to watch a film or anything else.

When day broke she leaned on her pillows worn out, but first she pressed on the remote control to switch the TV off.

****

Without beating around the bush, the cousin told her that if she wanted to go on working at the joint she would have to get herself a protector, which as Lydia now discovered, was what her truck driver implicitly was, or do tricks with clients to cover up her expenses. Seeing as he did that she was at a loss for words, he told her to take her time before getting back to him.

“No worries, just let me know tomorrow. What are you looking at? Have you lost your voice? You’re a beautiful girl, you look just like the Onattopp girl in James Bond, did you know that? Only you’re not evil like her! You’ll get through. Get up, go for a ride, take the night off. Come back tomorrow, I’m here for you”.

She left the joint not knowing what to do. She sat on a bench in the square and pondered over the cousin’s words, especially the “I’m here for you” part. Had things been different, she would enjoy looking at all those people in the square, moving to and fro without a care in the world, or at the colourful posters glued all around her. She used to like counting how many advertised cigarettes, or soft drinks, or movies, or sports shoes. But now, all she could think about was the “I’m here for you”.

No sooner had she put her key in the lock, than her landlady appeared, all dolled up, asking: “My goodness, are you still here? Don’t you work tonight? Come with me! My husband is absolutely bored of movies and I have an invitation for two. It’s for the avant-premiere of a Greek movie, “The two edges of the town”, directed by a local, that’s why it opens here, as they would say in Athens. This movie is the talk of the town, it is festival material. Get your coat and off we go!”

Unable to respond, Lydia accepted her landlady’s solution and soon thereafter they were both at the cinema, looking at town officials arriving, along with the protagonists who posed for the local reporters, whilst receiving compliments from socialites.

In the break, when the two of them stepped on the foyer to have a smoke, the landlady said that her brother, who had given her the invitation and who was a cashier at the cinema, invited both of them to the honorary reception, to be held later that night at the “Achilleion”, a new, modern hotel on a hill outside the town. Lydia had tried to decline, but the landlady insisted.

“It’ll be good for you now that your’re feeling down. Everyone who’s someone in Grevena will be there, from the City Hall to the Greek Film Center. We’ll eat gourmet food prepared by the hotel’s French chef, we’ll drink whiskey… Do tell, what’s got into you tonight? You haven’t said a word. Did something happen at work?”

Lydia told her everything about her life, succinctly and soullessly, closing with the statement that if she didn’t do what the cousin had said, at the end of the month she would have trouble paying for food and rent.

The landlady replied “God will provide and I’m your friend. Don’t worry about it, something will come up and everything will be alright. But tonight leave it all behind, don’t sweat the small stuff. Concentrate on the movie which, mind you, is not irrelevant to your life, and let’s go party at the reception”.

To the reception, after the movie was over, they went in the company of the landlady’s cashier brother who fancied flirting with Lydia – which became evident by means of various compliments on the way to “Achilleion”. So Lydia went there, but did not party; she only broke a plate and a glass at an awkward moment when her heel got caught in the carpet. She would definitely fall down if it hadn’t been for the man who held her back at the cost of being bathed in whiskey and mayonnaise.

“I’m so sorry…”

“Not at all”.

“What can I do? How can I…”

“It’s nothing”.

He took her away from her friends in search of the toilets which were on the right, outside the reception hall. There, completely and utterly detached, Lydia took a careful look at the man who stood opposite her outside the toilet, and listened as he said:

“My name is Titos Stylianides. I directed the film which I presume you’ve just watched. I have a room here, at the hotel, and I suggest we go to my room and wash up, instead of getting into the toilets, because I’m not sure whether we should opt for the women’s or the men’s.

His laughter, which wrapped his phrase, made him even more attractive, and his thick grey hair, of the same colour as his eyes, swept Lydia away, just like the heroine in the cheap romance she was reading with an eye to practicing her Greek.

She fell for him; on the spot. It was completely different than what she felt about her truck driver or the gymnast in Belgrade.

She felt that the director was her whole life. Only after it all happened in Stylianides’ room did she realize that she had parted ways with her landlady and her cashier of a brother, without so much as a “goodnight” or an explanation.

He made love to her in a peculiar, ever so interesting manner. “What’s your name?”

“Lydia”.

“I want you to come with me to Athens…”

“When?”

“In two days. I have to pay a visit to my mother, she’s from here, hence me being part local. My father, dead now, was from Cyprus. They met when my mother, a teacher, was appointed at a school in Limassol. Where are you from?”

“I was born in a village outside Skopje, but lived for quite a few years in Yugoslavia, studying at the Academy of Gymnastics in Belgrade. Then I went back to Skopje to look for a job and…”

She went on to narrate her life for the second time on the same night. She told him everything and felt that she couldn’t live without him.

“I’ll come with you”.

****

That year, October was akin to August, that’s why they set off early, to avoid being struck head on by the sun.

Whilst traveling on provincial roads, Lydia relished the beauty of the alternating Greek landscape.

She felt her eyes weighed down by sleep, not least because Stylianides drove tranquilly, while darting smiling glances at her. She was looking at his silver hair dancing in the wind which ever so silently made its way through the window, until they reached the highway and he closed it. She hardly slept, her mind immersed itself in everything that had transpired over the last three days, ending with her bidding the landlady farewell.

“I told you so, didn’t I?” she bragged over being vindicated in the prediction she offered on the night she had dragged her to the movie premiere. “Everything will be alright, I told you so. There you are now, ready to go away, not to mention who with! Of course, I’m sorry you’re leaving, you’ve been a good tenant, and an even better friend. Do call every once in a while, will you? You won’t forget about me in Athens”.

To the cousin she didn’t reveal the whole truth about her going away. Her instinct kicked in to survival mode upon seeing his surprise first, then his anger.

“Now who’s supposed to pay for the damage you had caused me for three years, when the truck driver was banging you? You don’t want to do tricks, fine; you’ll work at the bar, earn me some dough. I told you I’m here for you, didn’t I? Why are you leaving Grevena? Where are you headed to? You can’t do any better than here. How do you intend to go to Athens? Alone or did you get yourself a boyfriend like my cousin? Make no mistake, I’ll find a way to get the money I lost because of you… wherever you go, I’ll find you”.

She didn’t have time to relate the threats of the cousin-boss to Stylianides; as she began recounting how she said goodbye to her neighborhood, from the landlady to the pizzeria guys, he hugged her and carried her away onto streets of lust only he knew, using his lips to close her mouth as she disappeared in his eyes.

She opened her eyes when they stopped at a gas station.

“Come on, sleepy girl… Step outside, stretch your legs”, Stylianides said as he tickled her, then opened the door and made a hand-stretching exercise before asking the young boy to fill it up. “I’m going to the piss pot” he whispered to her upon leaning toward the window, which made Lydia laugh.

“You act like a little boy… Are you always like that?”

“You’ll see for yourself”. And he stepped into the W.C. at the gas station.

They made a second stop to grab a bite for lunch. After all, there was no rush to arrive in Athens. The day was theirs. For Lydia, everything seemed like a beautiful fairytale. Never before had anyone took so much care of her, caressed her both literally and metaphorically, explained this and that. For instance, when Stylianides exited the highway he told her:

“Down the road from this turn lies Aliartos, a small hub of a village on the way to Delphi or Arachova. Have you ever been?”

“No… Kastoria, Grevena and Platamonas; that’s Greece for me…”

“Alright, then we’ll take an excursion to Delphi, it’s worthwhile. What was I saying? Right… there’s a steak house outside Aliartos, it serves delicious grilled meat… but I’ll skip the wine. We’re still a bit far from Athens”.

“Thank you”.

“What for?”

“Just… for taking care of me”.

“Lydia, my Lydia… See? We’re almost there”.

The broiler knew Stylianides from before, so he gave them a warm welcome, set the table for two outside under the shade and personally saw to it that they were well taken care of and served the finest plates.

While they were eating, he talked to her about his movie, the actors, the shooting, editing, being pressed for time by the production and distribution agency, and several other things that Lydia knew nothing about. Every once in a while she would stop him and inquire the meaning of specific words or procedures and then she would repeat them again and again, to make what was his, hers. She felt that her life had radically changed, so much so that she wasn’t sure she was the same Lydia as the one she remembered until the day before yesterday.

They arrived in Athens at sunset. There, she could make out Acropolis and Parthenon, but also St George on Lycabetus amidst colours of magic.

“A beautiful city, just like a dream…” Lydia whispered and kissed Stylianides tenderly, behind the ear. “Thank you”.

“You must have thanked me forty times by now! How many times do I have to thank you for being with me?”

Lydia wished she had a friend, if only to tell her how she had reached the apex of happiness. The thought was too audacious to consider. She couldn’t get enough of the streets, the squares, the fountains, the shops, especially on the street Stylianides had parked.

“Here we are. This quarter is called Kolonaki; this is Patriarch Joachim Street and I live in this penthouse” he said, pointing upwards to an elegant apartment building. “Welcome to Athens”, and he kissed her right there, in the middle of the street.

***

For the next month and a half she was to live in Athens, Lydia felt like Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman”, even though Symonakis, Stylianides’ associate and best friend, who welcomed them on the first night, seeing that he had keys to the apartment and made sure everything was in order while the director was away, told her on that same night that she reminded him of the actress playing Onatopp in the James Bond movie, just like the truck driver’s cousin in Grevena did!

“The actress’ name is Famke Janssen”, Stylianides said and without being sure, Lydia thought that beyond admiration she detected something else in the eyes of Symonakis, akin to meanness.

During her first Athenean days, she and Titos roamed the shops in Kolonaki, made her hair the way he liked it, bought shoes, more shoes than she had ever bought in her entire life, they casually stayed up late in watering holes or slumbered in cafeterias in the square, watching as autumn rain fell down. She learned everything, or at least everything, about him. He even promised that before shooting on location, planned for early December in Pyrgos Ilias on behalf of ERT, which was his permanent job – anything else he did, for instance the movie, he did as a freelancer – so he told her that before shooting in Pyrgos he would take her for three days in Delphi; and if it snowed by then, they would drive up to Parnassus.

In fact, he made the promise in front of Symonakis and Antigone one night when Titos himself made pasta with an amazing sauce and invited Symonakis and his new amore for dinner. Antigone – chestnut blonde hair, bob hairstyle, average built and blue eyes toying with the green-azure shades of her blouse – looked like Michelle Pfeiffer. Symonakis had a flair for detecting similarities, as Lydia went on to observe.

So, amidst pasta and red wine, Symonakis indicated the similarity between Antigone and Pfeiffer, and closed by saying how Antigone, an upcoming actress, would love at some point to reenact on stage Michelle Pfeiffer’s character from the movie “Frankie and Johnny”.

“How about it, maitre? Would you like to direct it on stage next winter? And… needless to say I’ll be your assistant director. No doubt about that!”

“I’d be honoured… to take on both parts of the proposition… but you’ll need to get me an impresario. I like the play! What we need is a producer!”

“I’ll work it out”, Symonakis said and winked at Antigone.

For the greater part of the night, Lydia remained a mere observer, just like she would be for most of the nights Stylianides would take her with him left and right to meet the actors of his movie, film critics, writers, screenwriters, TV executives, painters, composers, singers – a world that to her was so distant, yet so charming.

In the meantime, she kept waiting for the road trip to Delphi, an excursion just for the two of them.

Even so, the excursion never came to pass or rather, was postponed when Stylianides got invited to attend the Thessaloniki Film Festival where his movie, “The two edges of the town”, would be screened outside competition, and so they would have to go there for three days.

Translated by Despina Pirketti
* Excerpt from the novel
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