BALKANI
English   Áúëãàðñêè
HRISTOS HAJIPAPAS


Absolutely Normal




When people relate such events they confine them to the mental hospital. But as I have not done anything dangerous, nor have I molested anyone they allow me to circulate freely. It is highly probable that they may call me “Madman”. Though even that may not happen because in every respect I am absolutely normal.
I have never transgressed present-day conventions. Examples? As many as you like: I kotow to the boss. I would even go so far as to say that I am quite a bootlicker. On name-days I pay visits to my friends bearing gifts and I mean real gifts, not just any old thing, but Christian Dior cologne, a box of cigars, a bottle of whisky or a very expensive pack of cards. Someone gave me the cards last year but because I am not fond of playing cards I passed them on to someone else, just like everyone else who makes presents or gifts they have received and which they have no use for. Only they do it with attention to every detail whereas I gave the pack of cards with the original greeting card enclosed. Everybody heard how I had put my foot in it – the story got back to me. I was ashamed about that. But I was even more embarassed on another occasion when 1 gave a book as a present. I know that it is reprehensible for anyone to make a present of a book, so I now give expensively bound fake books like those which embellish the bookcases together with the ornaments.
I diligently go to work punctually. In the afternoons I do odd jobs. I am a moneygrabber so I work like a dog. I am in every sense a man like all others.
I do not want to get a name for myself, so I shall tell you a story about something that happened to me. The most you can do is to write it down. I will be lost among the words. Nobody will recognise me.
I work in the town of Larnaca. My father passed away two years ago without ever having seen that town. That used to be something common between us, because I also went to the town of Larnaca for the first time when I was transferred there three years ago. Yet from my very first acquaintance with it I felt that I was already somewhat familiar with it; rather like a recollection from a nightmare. I have the impression that if I had not been forced to go there I would have avoided doing so until the end of my days.
It was really a painful acquaintanceship. Each time I uncovered a new aspect of it I rebelled: the dusty streets, the wishy-washy park, the characterless eyes of the women, its blatant self-confidence.
In that town it is impossible to walk without feeling thirsty. I sat down at one of the tables on the pavement outside a cafe to have a cup of coffee. Inside a gang of teenagers, mainly from the gymnasium opposite, were huddled together over pinball machines. Girls and boys exchanged clever in-nuendos which heartily tickled them, both body and soul.
The boy who was sitting at the table next to me was smoking a cigarette sometimes brazenly, sometimes covertly. Now and then he glanced at me with hatred-filled eyes – it seemed that my presence prevented him from smoking openly. Not that I paid any attention to him because at that precise moment I saw my father approaching me from the direction of the bus-stop. As usual he was carrying a basket. Even from a distance his prominent cheekbones convinced me that it was really my father. As he got nearer the black marks of the treatment he had had just before he died became more distinct.
You would think that we had arranged to meet because he came straight across to my table. He was bent with the basket in his hand. His shirt was of the indefinite colour of age and it was creased as if it had just been taken out of the laundry basket. It was always a complaint of my father that my mother never ironed his shirts, and when he died, I remember he was wearing a creased shirt. In addition to six children, and the running of the house and the work in the fields she should have ironed the shirt which my father wore for church on Sundays.
I imagine that my two shirts also looked like his. I remember them clean and ironed when I tried them on when my uncle first brought them to me. They had belonged to his son who was quite a bit older than me. At first I kept them for best, that is to say I rarely wore them, but I think the reason was that they were a bit big for me. For that reason they lasted me several years. I cannot really swear as to what extent they became crumpled because the feeling of ironed clothes I acquired much later. I felt that in spite of being worn they kept their bourgeois origin for a while.
In addition to being very smart they had double sleeves – a clever design of the poverty of that time. From what I understand the winter sleeve was sewn onto the summer one with the first rains of autumn and taken off in spring with the arrival of swallows. No matter how ingenious this artifice looked, it did not appeal to me because it was a strategem of the town and the next day everyone would guess that I was wearing hand-me-downs even if the shirts were new, newer than those of the others who had shirts to wear. My father, however, who was over forty-five when I got to know him did not have pretensions about what he wore, even when my mother made ill-matched sleeves.
As well as the characteristic cheekbones with the blue scars of the treatment, I noticed the double sleeves.
Oh, he had many shirts with double sleeves. My uncle was a man who worked in an office in the town and he had many shirts. But it seems that the fashion suddenly died out forever one summer and he gathered them all together and brought them to us. And they must really have gone out of fashion forever because never again did I see a man with double sleeves except for my father and myself. Years later only my father wore such shirts because he had a big stock of them and he kept them only for special occasions so they lasted him until the end of his life. With his death that fashion, which had lasted practically twenty years, went out in our village too. In such a shirt, but completely crumpled, my father went to his grave.
I remember the day when they telephoned me at work that my father was ill in hospital. Death immediately crossed my mind. I reckoned that it would not be straight away, at that same moment.
I did not ask for permission to leave work early but I finished as usual at two, took a taxi and went home. I had a drink of beer, took a bite to eat. I had a shower because Nicosia was hot and I took a nap. In the late afternoon I got into my car and set off. I took my time doing all those things because I believed that death visits such people after twilight, at night. Those who make night, day, cannot die at midday. Death leaves them free to spend the last day of their life, to enter the night and then to get lost in it -in its interminable path, the network of steps which leads to the day. But lo! The day does not come. And their soul wanders in the night as when in the coolness of the night they were carrying straw, as if they were storing the straw in the warehouse, or as if they were going for the sunny fields with the long thin sticks on their shoulders which the falling stars leant on.
Besides what could I change? He was a person who suffered from ill health: his bowels troubled him and he spewed out injustice for years. Even my mother got fed up with him the last months. „God forgive him. My arms were not strong enough to lift him,“ she said at his forty-day memorial service. God forgive him. Who knows if God forgave him. However, my uncle the one with the shirts, when he came to the hospital insisted that God had forgiven him. „He assiduously went to church, he praised the Lord, his children ah... Well, he did not educate them all (he educated only one, – that’s my remark) he did what he could – God will forgive him.”
I am sure the old man who was in the pangs of death heard him, because he was always sound of hearing. His teeth had fallen out, his sight deterio- rated suddenly like Saint Paul’s one noon, and his muscles one by one had gradually become paralysed. Only his hearing remained. He heard sounds, even the faintest ones, until the last moment.
And he would have agreed with my uncle. Attending church he had also acted as cantor and his children... Ah! The one who was educated, that is to say myself, who graduated from the gymnasium, does not believe in God. I, who was enlightened, do not believe in the light. My uncle did not actually say that but he believed it. Nor did my father hear it, who with all his blind faith, maybe loved me the most.
When I went I found him in bed supported by two pillows. His children had gathered from everywhere. I was the last to arrive. A short while before, with his weak sight and his good sense of hearing, he had acknowledged the others. I was the unlucky one. There were tubes in his nose, and oxygen cylinders: he was breathing with difficulty. The sultriness of the sea atmosphere was cutting short his oedematous breathing by the minute. From time to time he took great gulps of air which never satisfied him.
At the end they said that he recognised me too.
“Your Petrakis has come too”, they all said while I held his feeble hand. “YourPetrakis”.
I was always angry with the use of this deminutive “Akis” and on occasions in the army they told me off about it. However, at this moment I felt it like a caress.
He made an indefinite movement of his lips. “He recognises you,” they all said together. Holding his hand I felt a slight quiver, then nothing.
When he got nearer to me I was ashamed of him with his wicker basket and his unironed, crumpled shirt with its double sleeves. I was ashamed in front of the beardless youth who smoked his cigarette half brazenly, half covertly.
I pretended that I had not seen my father. They call me Petros here. As I had not yet paid for my coffee I went inside towards the cash desk. In the smoky atmosphere of student roar I found respite playing the pinball machines. It was the first time in my whole life that I felt like playing with electric buttons. The girl students looked at me as if I had a spot as big as a lemon on my nose. I rushed to get outside in case I scratched it in my confusion and soiled their clean faces.
At the entrance I bumped into my father. His basket was filled with figs, fresh, juicy figs which he sold in brown paper bags. It was the same basket which had caused me so much distress when, as a student, he had sent me to the town, either to sell fruit or to take them as a present. Yet how I longed to go empty-handed, to smoke a cigarette among unknown people in the wide streets without being burdened with a basket that clearly indicated my roots. And when I had emptied the contents either on the counter of a shop or in the stomach of some lawyer or tax inspector I still had to carry it. Empty now...
His hands were covered in a purple rash from the juice of the figs.
“Hello Petraki“, he said with a sweet smile full of happiness when he met his son so unexpectedly. For the first time in my life I came across such joy in someone’s eyes. „Let’s sit down and have a coffee,“ he said pulling me over to the table which 1 had been sitting at before and which was now free.
Taking the basket from his hand I followed him. He settled himself down in the plastic chair with some difficulty, because of his bent back.
“Petraki, why don’t you come and visit us, it’s two years since I last saw you,“ and he plunged his hands into the figs. Since he did not have his hands free he got up with difficulty. “I’ll go and wash them“, he said as he went inside.
I was upset to see him holding two handfuls of figs and walking towards the counter. I put my head in my hands and pretended that I was talking to an old man who simply happened to sit down at my table.
“Petraki”, he went on, although I had told him thousands of times to call me “Petro”. “Petraki, you haven’t brought your son for us to see yet. I hear he’s a lovely looking child.”
I wanted to say that the child looked like him but I did not dare to, not because I was ashamed of my father in his unironed shirt. After all the circumstances of his life had ruined him. All the same is it right to talk to a man who had passed away two years previously and to top it all by telling him that someone resembled him? What would other people say?
But I am, as you have already been convinced, a respectable gentleman. I have my circle of friends, I fulfil my social obligations and I expect promotion. And you in particular understand that I must not disclose this to anyone.

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