Authors: Sara Alexi
Also by Sara Alexi
The moss under her fingers is too wet for a sure grip. Crouched as she is, her heels raised on the tufts of grass by the dry stone wall, Ellie is tipping forward. Shifting to lean her shoulders against the stones, her fingers let go and she tucks her icy hands in between her legs and her stomach, down in her crotch, seeking warmth that is not there. The incessant rain plasters her hair to her head. It drips down her collar, a stream running the length of her spine. The wind is less on this side of the wall but it still bites deep. The cars on the main road on the other side of the wall hiss with the spray thrown up by their wheels as they pass.
How long would it take for hypothermia to set in?
Her teeth chatter and she dips her head as low as she can.
First, she will shiver as her body’s warmth is sucked inside to keep her organs functioning. She is at that stage already. Then her limbs will become numb as the blood ceases to flow to the extremities. Already she cannot feel her toes. There is a searing pain through her fingers. It fits. It all fits. It has been just one blindingly sharp tear at her life after another. How naïve of her to try to think she could make anything better by going to Greece.
As hypothermia takes its grip there is a point, she has read, when she will no longer feel cold. Apparently you feel pleasantly warm by that stage; your mind plays tricks, becomes confused. Then gradually, her breathing will slow, the beat of her heart will grow faint and maybe, just maybe, someone will find her in a week or two’s time. But that will be after the foxes and the smaller creatures in the grass have found her first and her return to the earth will have begun.
His mind is a
before his body is. His mouth hangs open, relaxed, free-flowing dreams still there, almost tangible. His mind floats from one bizarre image to the next. It is exquisite to be caught like this, between waking and sleeping. Fragile pictures, illusions, delusions, nonsense. Sunlight, hills, a boat floating on olive trees, loaves of bread in amongst the goats, Natasha holding a crook. Swimming in silver, further and further out into a darkened nightclub with angelic music and flashing lights. Flying in blue, made of nothing but light. The precious feeling of how unimpeded his mind is, with no tightness, no worries, no memories, just mirages flowing.
He wakes automatically these days, savouring these moments, hanging onto the creativity before his mind begins to take control, the tedium of everyday thoughts returning. He has no will to open his eyes. The room is black, its sparseness invisible, the plain wooden chest of drawers and chair only shadows, the unadorned white walls reflecting what little light there is, dawn not yet breaking outside the window.
A sharp tap comes through the wall from the bedroom next door. Tuc, tic. The first tap tightens his shoulder muscles, the second those in his neck and third those in his jaw and he grinds his teeth.
Eyes still shut, Loukas sits, rests a minute still floating in and out of the impressions in his mind; delicate touches, light feathery kisses, flowers with transparent petals, the sensation of weightlessness. Then he stands, the bare wooden floorboards creaking their objection, reality pressing him awake. Anticipation fills him as he pulls open the window so he can push the shutters outwards—there may be a breath of cool air. He would sleep with the windows open all night if it wasn’t for the mosquitoes. His actions are automatic, guided by habit as he is still without full consciousness. There is no breeze, no cool air today. A dim glow comes from the sole streetlight that is mounted on the wall by the
. Where its illumination cannot reach, it creates long fingers of ink that
behind the kiosk, up the side of the palm tree, and around the small, empty fountain. Loukas’ room above the bakery overlooks the square where the fountain and the palm tree jostle for space with the kiosk, which sells cigarettes and other small items.
The whitewashed village houses loom like ghosts from the shadows, offering up no pinpricks of light from cracks in closed shutters. Even the farmers who hunt in the early dawn are still dreaming of hilltops full of rabbits. Their dogs, too, are asleep. It will be an hour yet before the dawn telegraph of barks and howls and cockerels crowing. There is nothing to indicate that the village is alive, that hundreds of people live here, that the day will bring bustle and gossip. For now, they are all safe behind closed blue shutters in the relative cool of the night.
Loukas clenches his fists and raises them to his ears, elbows upwards, before punching the air above his head, the energy of youth coursing through his veins. His face twists, mouth opens wide, his eyes shut tight as he sucks in oxygen. It helps him to surface. With blurry eyes, he reluctantly reaches for his trousers, which are slung over the back of the chair, and his t-shirt, which lies crumpled on the floor. It is nicer to be naked and cool. Now that would cause a stir!
Sitting on the wooden chair to lace his boots, out of the corner of his eye, he catches the pictures by his bed. One of his sister, the other Natasha, still there, smiling at him. She will always be there smiling, unchanging, her eyes watching him as he moves around the room. It’s nearly a year now. The loss has settled as a constant hollow in his chest that weighs down his breathing. A weight that is changing, no longer so much for her as for himself, his endless life ahead of him in which he is on his own. Grief that has almost turned into self-pity. The very person who was meant to set him free has, by her death, trapped him.
The rapping on the adjoining wall repeats itself. His feet on the landing and down the uncarpeted wooden stairs are loud enough to let them know he is up. This is not what he ever envisaged for his life, but then, he did not envisage his early marriage or her early death, either. Stomping down the stairs, he makes no effort to quieten his footsteps. He’s up, why should they not be?
A few more minutes of semi-sleep are part of his ritual as he waits for the water to heat over the stove. With two spoonfuls of sugar, the water glistens. A quick stir and it is dissolved enough for the coffee to be added. The grounds sit on the bubbling sweet water, the rich brown turning darker around the edges as it absorbs the solution, its own heaviness sucking it under. Loukas’ eyes close, his head drops forward and he jolts awake. The coffee will boil over if he doesn’t watch it now and he will have to start again. How many times has he done that?
The frothing mass on top of the coffee rises slowly at first and then suddenly dashes for the rim. Lifting it off just in time, he pours it into his waiting cup and takes it from the kitchen through to the
, the bakery that connects the house and shop.
The stone-flagged floor is swept and pale from years of scrubbing, the central wooden table worn smooth with kneaded dough. Wooden raising troughs are stacked against the stone oven door, uniform and blanched with use. Sacks of flour stand, sagging around their middles. Their top corners, twisted like ears, droop as if they too are snoozing.
The dough machine gleams as usual in its corner, scrubbed clean and ready for use. It is a fine contraption, welded together by the local mechanic out of parts scavenged from his workshop, the result of ingenuity and deliberation, and many breaks for coffee, at a fraction of the cost of a commercial model.
Natasha was so proud of him when he finally brought it home. If he had to do it again today, he would build it bigger, have it knead ten kilos of bread at a time, twenty even. But back then, the thought of a machine mixing just three kilos was enough to spur them all on. Every five minutes, another three kilos mixed and ready to rise. It was a lot quicker than working by hand and afforded extra hours in bed, Natasha wrapping her arms around him, not allowing him to rise until he had made good use of the extra time.
Balancing his coffee cup on an upended dough trough, Loukas goes out to the back of the building, into the dark, and returns with a sack of olive logs, sawn and split to the right size. Once the fire under the still-warm oven is stoked, he opens the small window at the side of the building and pulls up a painted wooden chair to catch some of the dawn’s cool air, to accompany his caffeine fix. There is nothing to see through the window, which opens on the alley at the back of the building, the stone wall opposite an arm’s reach away. But it will be the only time he is not sweating, until the same time tomorrow.
First, it will be the work that brings beads of perspiration to his forehead, the heaving and lifting of the sacks, weighing the ingredients, shaping the mixed dough and giving it the final hand knead before he cuts it and lays each flattened sphere on a muslin cloth to put in the wooden dough troughs to rise. When all that is done, the raw heat of the oven will ensure his sweating continues as he paddles loaves in and out, swapping them around inside the oven’s cavernous mouth so each has its turn to cook and brown in the prime spots. And when this is done, the sun will be at its highest in the sky.
He will have a brief sleep mid-afternoon when the shade offers no cool, and when he wakes, there will be a little time to himself to read, walk, or make orders for the bakery and then he will be in bed again before the slight drop in temperature that the evening brings at this time of year. At the height of summer, neither the evening nor the dawn will bring such relief.
But right now, a whisper of wind plays with the fine longer hairs above his forehead. Round his neck, his hair is shorn in an attempt to stay cool. He rubs a hand over his chin stubble. It is his refusing to get out of bed any earlier that ensures he never shaves until work is done.
The boiled coffee nectar is rich and smooth with an aftertaste of bitterness that helps him to inch his way to wakefulness. At least in these first few hours, Natasha’s mama and baba, the old woman and the old man, are not around. They are curled up in their sagging bed. This was understandable in the first months of mourning, of course—they had lost a daughter—but as time has gone by, they seem to have forgotten that he lost a wife, too. With their huffs and sighs, it felt as if they were trying to prove that their loss was greater, deeper than his, and they would clutch at each other with silent tears, as if it was some sort of competition. However much he cried, they cried more; however sleepless his nights were, theirs were more disturbed. Until, after the initial shock became a heavy reality, life had to continue and the bread had to be made. But now, it is only he who rises before dawn to keep the bakery running. The old man and old woman’s grief still keeps them in their beds and makes them weak, they say.
‘We are not so young and resilient as you, Loukas. You still have life, vitality. But for us, our reason to live is gone. It has made us grow old quickly.’ The old man’s white-stubbled, saggy chin quivered and his age-spotted hand wiped away a tear.
‘It will take us time to recover, Loukas, a month or even two at least to get over the shock. You would not begrudge us that, would you?’ The old lady hobbled to the sink to get herself a drink of water as she spoke, her stout legs seemingly no longer capable of taking her slight weight even though her clothes hung from her as if she was no more than a wire effigy.
How much of their physical suffering was real, it was impossible to tell, but their sadness filled the house and it only took him a second to think how he would feel if he and Natasha had had a child and that life had been lost. So he told them to take all the time they needed.
That was nearly a year ago and they still lay in bed until the bread is ready to come out of the oven. Ready for the easy job of brushing off the loose flour and blackened bottoms and opening the bakery doors to sell the results of his labour to appreciative customers, the trickle of villagers filtering through the shop door until the shelves are bare.
Loukas drains the last of his coffee and reminds himself that being bitter will not help. He has a job. He has a roof over his head.
‘But that’s all.’ His first spoken words of the day come out rough and gravelly and he clears his throat.
’ He uses the Greek word for love, life, fun, and the thrill of being alive. ‘I have lost my
.’ His voice is less rough this time.
Trying to remember the last time he felt anything alive and happy takes him to places that hurt. Was it when he danced with Natasha in the sand of Saros beach one night when no music played? Maybe it was when she laughed at his teasing, threw a dough ball at him, her baba scowling when it stuck to the outside of the oven, steam hissing from it. Too high to be reached, they giggled away as it cooked and then burned, falling to the floor later as black petals that her mama complained about as she brushed and mopped the floor. Or maybe it was right back at university in Athens. They both felt truly free then, with everything before them, with no thoughts for the economic crash that was going to dictate the course of their lives and persuade them to leave the capital and return to the village. Their friends laughed with them back then. A group of fifteen or so, always someone around to pass the time with. Yes, he definitely had
then. How easy it is to notice when the joy of life is missing and how seldom when, at the time of having passion, triumph, and spirit, it is taken for granted and consequently it passes so quickly and uncelebrated
He weighs out the flour, yeast, salt, and water.
‘That is the way of man,’ he grumbles to himself as he pours the ingredients into the dough mixer.
The weighing out of the ingredients for each batch takes him a full five minutes this early in the morning, his movements still sluggishly fighting sleep. The first dough is now smooth and elastic and he dumps it out onto the table, then pours in the next batch. Once the machine is clanking and rattling in motion, he swiftly cuts the dough on the table into three portions and slaps each into a partitioned trough to rise before starting to weigh the ingredients again. The troughs are lined up neatly, with a clean cloth over the top.
He must not complain. There are many in Athens who have had no work for months. At least he makes enough to put money in his pocket.
‘Yes, and in the pockets of the parents of a wife who has been dead longer than we were married.’ He grunts as he lifts a sack of flour.
These first few hours of the day are lonely and joyless.