by Colette Ni Reamonn Ioannidou
As published in In Focus Vol. 11, No. 4, December 2014
The day cracked open like a ready egg, the light filtered through in chips and cracks. It emerged from the shadows like a damp chick, moist and heavy on its feet. Then it fluffed itself out as the sun dried the mist, and turned yellow and beautiful. A big shaggy tomcat stretched himself stiffly from the roof of the henhouse next door where he had spent most of the night. The hens below him were stiff as they stretched from their perches, the old fat ones didn’t budge at all. A man came from the house with a bucket in his hand; his wife came slowly behind him, heavy with sleep. She carried some scraps of fatty meat on an old plate. Animated, the cat ran forward and rubbed himself ingratiatingly against her legs and pounced on the meat scraps she put down for him, devouring them greedily. The fowl clucked excitedly as the contents of the bucket was emptied into the trough in front of the hutch, and when the gate squeaked open they climbed on each other’s backs in their desire to be first to the feed.
Froso watched the scene that day as she had watched it many days in the past. It was a better start than yesterday. The previous day the sky had thin white cloud laced over its blueness as though a hand had pulled open a packet of angel hair and spread it meanly about. The palm in Froso’s yard had had a hair cut. Michalis, their odd job man, had trimmed all its rough dry fronds away the day before. She had watched him shinny up the trunk with the speed and agility of a monkey in its element, his spatulate hands and feet in absolute accord as they worked his body upwards. His waist was supported by a thick circle of rope reinforced by an old army belt. He had stripped to the waist and was sweating profusely in the warm sunshine. He wore a pair of cut down trousers that acted as shorts, his body above and below them a dark honey brown. He had cut the dates off earlier, watched them drop like trails from fireworks to the cloths he had spread below to catch them. Froso thought they looked like witch fingers with nails of succulent bright fruit as she had viewed their ripeness before Michalis had cut them off. Michalis had hacked and chopped with the flourishes of a top hair stylist until he was satisfied with the slimness of the palm head. He let himself down as easily as he had clambered up. Froso felt a pang of mild envy for that lithe agility as she sat in her chair under the lemon tree. It had been a long time since she had been able to climb a tree or even move without difficulty.
Always keen to chat to break the monotony, Froso invited Michalis to have some coffee. “No, no thank you, no coffee. It’s bad for the nerves.” And he added by way of explanation that in his line of work, nerves were not an option,“But, if you have a mint tea I’d enjoy that.”
She asked politely if he’d attach the new gas cylinder for her; he said “of course.” As Froso made the tea, inhaling the sweet tang of mint picked from her own garden, she smiled. Michalis talked as though he was a circus performer who had to walk a tightrope. But, she chided herself; that was unfair; after all, he did have to climb up very high in his line of work and if that rope ever snapped…?
When Michalis left, Froso recalled her sister and the fig tree in her parental home in the mountain village of Lefkara. She was always the passive child, the quiet uncompetitive last one of seven. Her firstborn sister, Maroulla, was the bossy one. Froso suggested one day they play generous God and the supplicant. Her sister immediately collared the role of the Almighty and climbed the fig tree to hear the humble prayer of her small sister below. Froso had positioned herself at the base of the huge fig tree, plump little hands extended upwards, and cried to ‘God’ above in what she hoped were Biblical phrases,
“Dear God, small girl that I am, I cannot climb to the top of the tree where the ripest, most delicious fruit nestles in the branches, so can you please, in your utmost generosity, throw me down some lovely figs?”
Her sister obliged – until it dawned on her that the supplicant had by far the better role, but by then Froso’s tummy was full.
Her husband interrupted her thoughts when he shuffled in to tell her he had found a plumber to fix the leak in the lavatory.
“He’ll come as soon as he can, he says.” Themis lowered himself into a chair and chuckled, “He told me the same thing three days ago. They’re like ice in the desert, plumbers.”
“Yes, and they think we’re all as rich as Croesus.” Froso laughed. “You’ll need to stand over him.”
Some hours later, the placid old woman sat in her decaying kitchen eyeing the cobwebs on the ceiling that she could no longer get at; they’d have to wait for Marina, her daily help, to come back from her visit to Limassol to attend a family wedding. Froso was boiling underwear. During the last year she had lost control of her pee. Any sudden movement, even a hearty laugh brought on what she termed ‘a leak’. She hated her nappies; they made her feel humiliated, helpless as a baby that could not hold its water. But she had accepted the change in her body as she had taught herself to accept unpleasant things she had coped with in her life. She had been taught by her mother that underwear should always be boiled to be sure germs were destroyed. She poked the bubbling mass in the metal boiler on the gas with a spoke of wood salvaged from the back support of an old, broken garden chair. One end was white from the frequent immersion in the hot water; the other was blackened by the sweat of her palms. She had put her husband’s long johns in a plastic bowl ready for Themis, the more supple of the pair, to hang out on the line. He had not answered her first call, so she yelled a second time,
“Themis, come hang up your underwear.’
Eventually he heard her and shuffled towards her, carefully feeling the ground ahead of him with his feet for the drop step that led into the kitchen.
“What was that, my dear?” He peered at her with his dim eyes.
“Your underwear,” she said loudly, “I’ve boiled it, hang it on the line, dear.”
He looked around for the bowl, found it and shuffled out into the garden. Froso yelled after him,
“Don’t hang your long johns full length, they stretch, I can’t wring them like I used to.”
He replied that he would be careful and placed the bowl on the rim of the old fishpond, now bereft of fish life; insects only inhabited its cracked, dry bottom. The fountain spray that once sent out tiny, delightful showers of water, now worn by time, lay on its side like a semi decapitated head. A stray white cat came and rubbed herself against Themis’ thin legs, her little belly swollen with kittens. He often threw her scraps, and when he had no scraps, committed, to Froso’s mind, a terrible sin – he cut pieces off his chicken or fish to give her. He loved the cat and the affection was reciprocated. He bent stiffly to scoop the pliant body into his arms, held her close and cooed at her as he might to a baby. The cat purred in ecstasy, trusting him completely.
“You’ll get yourself full of hairs again,” Frozo reprimanded her husband. “She’s probably smelly.”
Themis looked at the face of the woman he loved, had always loved, would love till he drew his last breath and wondered why she hated cats, would let one starve rather than give it a bite to eat.
“They’re useless, just trouble, and you can’t eat them after you spend money to feed them.” Froso had so many good qualities, but she didn’t share his love of animals.
By the time Themis had put the cat down, he had forgotten his wife’s instructions and he hung the underwear full length, humming quietly to himself. The vine above the yard dappled it with patches of light and shade, and as Themis walked his body rippled with alternative motifs of light and dark. Froso tried to call out to him, but he was bent again talking to the damn cat and didn’t hear. She felt irritation rise but quashed it, knowing it wasn’t his fault; he was getting progressively forgetful with age. She knew the underwear would hang down in baggy heaps below his trousers at church on Sunday and that hurt her pride; she had always turned him out of the house immaculate. Her fingers now were deformed by arthritis and sewing was difficult. She’d have to wait for Marina to put a tuck in them. Because his memory was failing, she was always uneasy until he returned from the church. She usually listened to the service on her radio. One Sunday he had come out of an exit that was not the one leading towards home and became confused. A kind young man, who had seen him going around in pointless circles at the railings, had brought him home. As he walked towards her, feet close together carefully measuring his paces, the annoyance melted in her. How could she stay irritated with such a gentle soul, her gentleman in every sense of the word?
They were total opposites in most things, but they had in common poor backgrounds that both had escaped due to high intelligence and the will to work hard. They had become teachers and had passed on not only knowledge to the children who came to them, but also good manners and the belief that anyone born poor who applied themselves to their education could achieve what they desired in life. It had made them very proud to see some former students gain scholarships to prestigious colleges abroad. They were no longer poor yet they still held a sense of ‘being careful’ as opposed to being wasteful. After many years of self-discipline that had enabled them to build the big house with a spacious yard for children they had hoped to have, the couple resigned themselves to the fact that it wasn’t to be. When the tears and sadness had left them, their childless state made them love the children under their tutelage even more. Marina didn’t know it, but they had written their will leaving the house to her and her large family of six children, all squashed into a small cottage on the outskirts of town. The cash in the bank would go to the grandchildren of Froso’s siblings all of whom lived abroad in reasonable comfort. She was now the sole survivor of her family, and it was right, she and Themis had felt, to do that even though the relationship with them existed only in cards at Christmas and Easter, a rare holiday visit or phone call.
Themis was not tall, but he kept his back straight and his head up when he walked out, his silver tipped cane tapping ahead of him. He always wore a hat, a straw one in summer and a felt one in winter, which he doffed to the ladies with smiling respect. His white hair was combed tidily back to expose his well-shaped but deaf ears. He was as slim now as when Froso had first met him. His strong nose supported a pair of glasses that did precious little to help his encroaching blindness. Froso was fat, not due to obesity but rather inherited genes. She ate sparsely and carefully. Her heavy body tortured her with its limitations and her once alert brain was now, she recognized with a pang of fear, like her husband’s, becoming slower, and the frequent gaps and pauses between thoughts some days sounded a knell of doom in her consciousness. The prospect of them both ending up like vegetables in an old folks’ home appalled her. Froso had a round face that still bore signs of her past beauty. And no one could doubt the wisdom of life that sparkled in a pair of soft brown eyes, whose lines told the world how much Froso loved to laugh. Her ears were unusually large.
“Like a donkey’s.” she had told Themis, “And like a donkey I have lots of patience.”
He had witnessed that patience in the years of visiting doctors and hospitals while they tried in vain for a baby to enrich their lives and in the way she taught her students.
Froso turned off the gas and looked out at the garden she loved. The sun made her sleepy, she closed her eyes recalling other times in the garden. This had been such a home, her with her needlework, Themis poring over his stamp collection or writing his poetry. Marina must have all her lace and crochet work – she would appreciate it; it was all in her will. Her nephew Andros, a journalist in Australia, must have Themis books of poetry. She had asked Marina to post them after their death. His last work had been a dictionary of sorts listing the foreign words that had invaded his beloved Greek language, and how they were used. With each word came notes of its origins, of the peoples that had invaded his island home over the centuries and what they had taken from or given to its life. The furniture was good quality walnut, maybe Marina would keep it. Somehow physical objects that had been important to decide on years ago now seemed unimportant: they were things and things took care of themselves. Froso, who had always loved life, was suddenly tired, she was waiting for death. Her main concern now was that Themis go first; he’d be lost without her. She sighed; she was so looking forward to Marina helping her bathe, feel clean.
Night bought neither sleep nor comfort to Froso, her aches and pains gave her no rest. She woke to a surly, suddenly chilly morning of rain, thunderclaps and vicious lightning. Rain filled the pond; wind shook dry leaves from the trees and hailstones shredded them. Froso rose, her joints were swollen and stiff, but she had soiled underwear she wanted to boil. The kitchen, caught in the sudden change of weather, felt cold. She made some mint tea and toast and took their breakfast back to the bedroom.
“I’ll just rest awhile until the underwear boils, five minutes only. I must ask Marina to get out the heaters.”
Themis sighed in pleasure at the tea and toast. As it was cold, they joked, the best place for them was under the babloma.1 Themis said he’d read awhile, and she asked him to wake her up if she fell asleep; she had to turn off the boiler.
The water in the metal can began to bubble and rise, it seeped over the rim. The gas flame sputtered and died. The old couple, cuddled together for warmth, all windows shut tight, slept into eternity. They had lived a good life together and together they fell into a sleep from which they would not awake.
Marina had come back from her few days in Limassol and was looking forward to giving the old folk the sweet cakes she had saved for them from the wedding. As she entered the back gate the white cat was mewling at the door.
“Hungry are you, little one? I’ll find you something in a few minutes.” She took her key from her purse and opened the door. The smell of gas hit her and her hand flew to her mouth as she opened the kitchen windows and flung the door back as far as it would go. She turned off the gas tap and ran panicstricken to the bedroom.
“They looked as though they were asleep,” weeping, she told her husband that night as he cradled her in his arms and murmured words of sympathy.
Marina watched her youngest son Leonidas, play with Asproula’s2 three calico kittens in the old shed where he had made a home for them and their fat, contented mother. She had been overwhelmed to learn the house was hers and soon the family would celebrate Christmas in their new home. Her husband had set to fixing the place and now it gleamed as it had not for many years. The yard was filled with the play and laughter of children, a thing she knew would please the old folk so much. She often looked at the clothes line where Themis had hung his longjohns and her eyes would brim with tears. She had thrown away the boiler,but kept the old stick Froso had used for stirring her washing. It was scrubbed and hung on the kitchen wall alongside Themis’ silver topped cane.
“Together,” she told her husband as he fixed them in place, “I want them together… like Froso and Themis.”
1. Babloma – a traditional, pink Cypriot duvet.
2. Asproula – Whitey