Temps perdu

As published in In Focus, Vol. 12, No 1, March 2015

by Brigitte Münch

sleeping_manAs Eleni was coming out of the petrol station and entering the slip road to the National Highway, she saw a little further on, at the side of the road, a young man with a cheerful, dancing ponytail and a bag at his feet. He was looking at her and, with a smile, indicating with his hand the direction she was driving in. Eleni took her foot off the accelerator… but why? What did she have in mind? She had never given a lift to a hitch-hiker. She braked and stopped in front of him. She lowered the passenger window and looked at him curiously. He was, rather, a youth, at the most 20 years old.

“Where to?” she asked.

He bent down to the window and smiled happily.

“It doesn’t matter – the direction suits me. Just for a bit …”

Eleni hesitated for a few seconds and eyed him silently.

Then she said:

“All right, get in.”

“Thanks!” He sent a bright glance in through the window. Then he picked up his bag, opened the door and sat down. He placed his bag next to his feet. “This is fantastic! I’ve been waiting here for only ten minutes!”

The traffic was very light, much heavier in the other direction.

“What do you mean by “a bit”?” She asked him. “Where are you going?”

“Well, I haven’t got a specific destination – at the moment I have no plans except to get out of Athens. Where are you going?”

“Thessaloniki.”

“A long way. You’re going straight there, in one stretch?”

“Yes, of course. It’s still early. What’s your name?”

“Manolis. But people usually call me Manos.”

Eleni smiled for the first time.

“It sounds a bit more manly, doesn’t it? How old are you?”

“Twenty next month!”

Eleni turned her head to the right for a moment and let her gaze run over his profile. He wore a shiny earring and under his ear she noticed a dark brown mole – like an apple pip. This moved her in a strange way – she turned her head back and concentrated on looking at the road.

“May I ask you your name?” came politely from the right. “Since we’ll be together for a bit…”

“My name is Eleni. And use the singular please – I am not so old.”

“For God’s sake – such a thought never crossed my mind!” He raised his hands animatedly. “But after all one should be polite – and I expect you are a few years older than me.”

“A few, yes,” Eleni smiled again, “since I have two grown-up daughters almost your age!”

“Really? I would never have thought it… honestly!”

“So you don’t have a specific destination, as you say,” said Eleni after a short silence. “But don’t you have some purpose?” She looked at him questioningly for a moment.

“Well, nothing special. I just want to be close to nature for a bit – with no particular plan in mind.” He paused and went on.”You know, I am in my second year of studies… and before the winter vacation is over I want to get out of the city for a few more days. Anywhere.”

“And what are you studying?”

“History and French Literature.”

“An interesting combination! And why French Literature in particular?”

“I love it! And besides I am also sort of biased: my mother is French. I can say that I have grown up French.”

“In France, then?”

“Non, non!” Manos wagged his finger. “On Paros.”

“On the island of Paros?”

Manos gave a hearty laugh. “Of course! Is there another Paros?”

Eleni was silent for a few minutes and overtook a lorry. Small white Cycladic houses, and blue, wind-beaten ouzeri appeared before her eyes, with taut ropes on which octopuses were hung to dry.

“And your mother… how did she come to be there?”

”As a tourist of course. And one day she met my father… in the way these things happen.” He raised his palms as if talking about a sad but unavoidable fate.

“You would have preferred… something different?”

“Mais non!” Manos turned to the left with a happy expression and let a cheerful spark flash in his dark eye. “Anything but! I grew up with two mother tongues – or rather with one mother tongue and one paternal. And this fact alone is already something important! Have you ever been to Paros?”

“To Paros, no. But to some of the other Cyclades. They are all rather alike, by and large.”

Manos looked to the right out of the window. He bit his finger and seemed suddenly pre-occupied.

“Have I perhaps insulted your island?” asked Eleni cautiously.

“What?” Manos looked at her again. “Of course not. How could such an idea have crossed your mind! I was thinking, just for a moment…”

They were silent for a little. A few kilometres further on Eleni slowed down.

“Do you mind if we go more slowly?” she asked.

“Mind? Not at all! I’ve plenty of time… You’re the one who has to get to Thessaloniki today, not me!”

They went through the Afidnes toll with hardly any delay. Eleni went into the right-hand lane, left the window on her side half open and drove at a comfortable speed. It was one of those gentle January days when a deep blue sky covers the green winter landscape and the sun, completely untroubled by clouds, conducts the first rehearsals for spring.

“Are you going to Thessaloniki on a visit? Or for some professional reason?” Manos asked.

“I live there. I’m going back now after a visit. What about you? Did you spend the Christmas holidays at home?”

“Of course. But then I came straight back to Athens because I had to finish a piece of work for my next subject, and I wanted to do it with a fellow student. Now, however, the city has begun to get on my nerves… I’ll explode if I don’t get away for a little longer, do you understand?”

Eleni looked at him for a moment. “That’s unusual for someone of your age! My daughters have long faces when we go out sometimes on an outing. Unless, of course, it’s summer and we’re going to a beach for a swim.”

Manos shrugged. He stretched, raised his arms and crossed them behind his head. “So I daresay I won’t marry one of your daughters!” he said and sent her a joking smile. “I’m not a friend of the big city, I like nature – it’s only there I feel at ease.”

A light scent of wild mountain herbs came from Manos’s side of the car and wafted under Eleni’s nose towards the half-open window. Discreetly, but with enjoyment, Eleni breathed it in. This aromatic scent was familiar in a mysterious way but she did not know from where – it seemed to blow from some very distant past or from some long-lost world.

“Then why, after finishing your work, didn’t you go back home, to your island, for the rest of the vacation?” she asked.

“Eh, to see something else for a change. Anyway, I had enough of the family over the holidays.”

There followed a pause for a short time. Cars in a hurry were overtaking them on the left and even the bus was faster and vanished into thin air ahead of them.

“It’s funny, you know,” Eleni finally took up the conversation again, “There was a French woman in our family too, my great-grandmother…”

“Really?” Manos lowered his hands from his head and looked at her in surprise, as if he wanted to test the correctness of her statement.

“Quelle surprise, Madame! Avez-vous…”

“Stop! Stop!” Eleni interrupted him with a laugh. “There’s no point. I don’t remember a word, or hardly any. School was a long time ago…”

“Did you meet her?”

“No, I only heard about her, vaguely.”

“And how did she come to be here? Then, as a tourist…?”

“That’s out of the question, of course. But I have no idea.”

“But it would be interesting to find out, don’t you think?”

“Perhaps. It never concerned me nor have I ever asked. After three generations… Who is still interested? It’s just now that I suddenly remembered it.” – “Perhaps,” she continued after a short pause, “she had come here as a governess? That sort of thing happened in those days.”

Manos bit his finger again. “From what part of France did she come?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea about that either! Perhaps I should start to research the family tree…”

“Have you decided how far you want to go?” asked Eleni after a short pause.

“Up to the next exit, I thought. I’ll get out there and look for some paths to walk along.”

“What if I take the next exit and go onto the local road? We could go down to the sea, find a nice little tavern and I’ll treat you to lunch. And we’ll drink a glass of wine to my great-grandmother and your mother.”

“Are you serious?” Manos looked in amazement and laughed. “Are you sure? If you want…..”

“Thessaloniki won’t go away. It’s always in the same place,” she broke in cheerfully.  “Of course, what do you think… I always like spontaneous ideas.”

Eleni gave her hands a cursory wipe on several paper napkins. The small table resembled a battle field: mountains of shells, shrimp tails, fish bones, and piled-up lemons. In the middle a dismantled salad – Manos dipped a piece of bread in the oil and popped it into his mouth with appetite.

Eleni raised her glass.”To your mother and to my great-grandmother!”

Manos fished for a napkin, wiped his oily chin and fingers and raised his glass too.

“To the health of both of them,” he replied. “And to your health!”

They chinked glasses, drank and looked at each other. For a short time neither lifted their eyes from the other, they remained motionless as if frozen in a snapshot. Finally Manos smiled, raised his glass again and said quietly:

“Vive la France!”

“Vive la France!”

They drank and fell silent.

“You go there for sure from time to time,” said Eleni after a few minutes. “Do you like it?”

“So-so. Somehow… I prefer the old France.”

“Old?”

“I mean literary France, of one, two, three centuries ago… Voltaire, Balzac, Flaubert and the rest. But you’ll certainly say now ‘Unusual for someone of your age’… What can I do? In certain things I am hopelessly old-fashioned…”

“That doesn’t bother me at all. Anything but. Not, however, because I’m quite a lot older than you but…” She faltered and seemed to be searching for the right words.

Manos was playing with his glass, turning it in his fingers and holding his head at an angle. “But?”

“I don’t know… Perhaps because since this morning I have had a strange feeling, as if I have forgotten something – as if something has been lost from my memory, something that existed a long time ago and I can’t bring back.”

“Manos raised his finger cheerfully, as if at school.

“Proust! A la recherche du temps perdu… Have you read it?”

Good Lord, no! Or rather – yes, extracts, it must be more than 20 years ago. Anyway I still know what it’s about and what you mean.”

For a moment she sank deep in thought. And added, without much conviction, “Yes, perhaps it has some relation to what I was saying, a remote one…”

“Do you believe that what you have forgotten, or think you have forgotten, is something important?”

“Who knows…”

Manos looked at the sea, turning his head slightly to the right. Eleni’s gaze fell again on the mole like an apple pip under his ear.

“Do you believe in re-incarnation?” she asked him suddenly.

Manos straightened his head. His gaze seemed to be coming from far away and for a moment he found it difficult to re-orientate himself.

“What did you say – re-incarnation?” His eyes had evidently come back to the present – for a few seconds he looked at Eleni pensively. “Who knows…” he said in his turn. And then, after a short pause, “Are you interested in this subject?”

“Absolutely not. At least not until now.”

She was silent for a moment. And then she continued heatedly, as if she suddenly wanted to resist or defend something, “I’m a realist, I studied biology and not something like theosophy or some such thing. The devil only knows how such ideas suddenly came into my head!”

Manos did not withdraw his gaze from her. “Anyway, this has no connection with Proust…”

“Who knows…?”

As if in mute agreement they both raised their glasses again and chinked them.

“To temps perdu!” said Eleni.

“To the present!” replied Manos..

They drank, looked at each other and fell silent.

A noise woke Eleni. Perhaps it was the sparrows outside in the acacia who had energetically welcomed the first rays of the morning and were discussing and sharing out the tasks of the day. She opened her eyes. Dawn had just sent her first, still drowsy, pale light through the window and was proceeding, sluggishly to begin with and then more decisively, to chase away the shadows of the night. Eleni watched for a short time the battle between black and white until the night was defeated by the increasing brilliance of the sky.

Then she looked to the left. Manos was lying face down, his head on one side towards Eleni. His hand was still lightly resting on her, just below her breast. His loose chestnut hair covered almost the whole pillow and half of his face. He was sleeping deeply, his calm breaths only faintly audible.

Eleni smiled. She gently lifted his hand and placed it on the sheet. She sat up carefully and pulled the blanket up higher. For a short time she gazed at the branches of the acacia in front of the window. Then she looked again at the sleeping Manos. With a tender movement she pushed his hair back so the shiny earring and his mole appeared. Manos didn’t notice; his calm breaths continued uninterrupted.

Dear heart. I don’t know who you are and yet I recognise you. From one hundred, five hundred, one thousand years ago? Your scent of wild herbs is as familiar to me as the jasmine in the garden in my childhood. The apple pip under your ear is as familiar even as the two round moles of my daughters. Your body – so amazingly fresh and young and yet so old! How was it possible for me to forget you? And how shall I continue my life now, with a half-awakened but so ardent a memory from the unknown misty depths? Why were you so late in coming… or perhaps you should not have come at all? A tangent… the only possible point is touched. And has ignited meaninglessly. You are right and do well to toast the future. Dear heart! It is the only thing we really possess – for the moment.

Eleni pushed the blanket aside and got up carefully. As she went to the bathroom she picked up the clothes scattered on the floor. She put Manos’s clothes on the chair by the door and took her own into the bathroom.  Ten minutes later she was standing dressed beside the bed and casting a final glance at Manos. He had rolled over in the meantime and was now lying on his back, with his right arm fully stretched, but had not yet woken up. It was clear that he was dreaming, his closed eyelids were quivering slightly and his right palm was turned upwards as if in a gesture of enquiry.

Eleni closed the door quietly behind her. She found the landlady down in the yard, plucking dried leaves from the geraniums and having a sip of coffee now and then. She jumped when Eleni spoke to her – clearly she hadn’t expected her to appear so early. Eleni paid for the room and asked for a piece of paper and an envelope.

She sat in the reception room for a little while with the pen poised over the paper. Her gaze wandered through the window and over the sea, which was waking up and where on its deep blue the silvery freshness of the morning was still spread. Two small white clouds were passing with a yawn over it and blinking, still half asleep, in the rays of the sun which was climbing higher and higher. Eleni focused her gaze, which had been wandering in infinity, on the sheet of paper. For a few seconds she looked at it somewhat helplessly, as if wavering between crumpling it up or writing. Then she sat down and wrote decisively without stopping. “You are on the right track. What unexpected happiness that I crossed it for a moment… Now I must, after just this moment’s delay, return home. I shall never forget you as long as I live! Take care of yourself…Your Eleni.” She put the sheet of paper in the envelope, closed it and gave it to the landlady.

Slowly and hesitantly she drove away from the sea and passed by an olive grove and sheep grazing without taking any of it in. The morning sun was climbing higher without a pause and cheerfully taking charge of another gentle winter day, spreading its rays far in all directions and letting them dance happily on the tops of the trees.

Eleni turned onto the Highway and joined the smoothly flowing traffic. She accelerated and took the road straight for Thessaloniki.

Translated by Christine Georghiades

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