We ate hard bread, and cheese and olives, and drank spring water. Once I lifted a tortoise where it lumbered among pale clods of earth. It hissed, spurting hot urine on my hands. My old aunts shrieked in their black scarves. My mother lay with earthen feet, in shade as cold and thick as the spring water, fast asleep. My mother, Melpo…
“Now your mother wants to meet me,” Kerry says. “Why now?”
Kerry looks taut, as if angry, Jimmy thinks; but she is only disconcerted. Flecked with brown, her pale face is blushing. A green glow off the water, wavering up, lights her bronze hair.
“Darling, she didn’t say.”
“Well, why do you think she does?”
“She said so.”
“Yes, but why?”
Jimmy, balancing his rod on the warm concrete of the pier, lies back, his head in Kerry’s lap, his heavy eyes closed against the falling sun, the swathed still sea.
“You know she wouldn’t hear of it before.”
“She asked me your name again and said, ‘Dimitri, you sure you want to marry this woman? Really marry, in our church?’ ”
“And what did you say?”
“Yes, mama, really marry.”
“What have you told her about me?”
“Nothing much. Red hair, I said.
“Clancy’s gone to Queensland droving, and we don’t know where he are. ”
Australian, not Greek. Divorced, with one son called Ben. A teacher of maths at the same school.
“Did you say anything about the baby?”
“No. Not yet.”
“Well, I’m not showing yet.”
“No.” He hesitates. “Eleni and
Voula have not told her either. I asked them.”
“Well, yes. I told them, they’re my sisters. They said they’d guessed, any way.”
“Oh, come on.”
“Yes. When they met you at the dance. They are pleased. A daddy at 45, they keep saying. Better late than never. They like you. How about after school on Thursday? Is that all right? Nothing formal. Just in and out.”
“Try out your Greek on her.”
“You said she speaks English!”
“She does. She even makes us look words up for her. She hardly ever speaks Greek now, strangely enough.
But very broken English. Nothing like mine. Mine is not bad, after only 20 years here. Would you not agree?”
“For a quiet life, why not?”
Shafts of sunlight are throbbing through the water as outspread fingers do, in fan-shapes.
“She wants to meet you now,” he sighs, “because she is dying. Don’t be shocked when you see her. She is wasting away, and her mind wanders. I wish you could have known her when she was young. Her life has been martyrio. Martyrio, you know?”
“Because of the war?”
“Oh, yes, the war. Many things. The war was the worst. I was only about eight then. My sisters were too little to help. Our baby brother was sick. We were evacuated from our village. My father was a prisoner. Can you imagine it? His mother, my Yiayia Eleni, minded the little ones. I sold cigarettes, razor blades, koulouria those rolls like quoits with sesame? on the streets all day. My mother did cleaning, sewing, washing for rich women, to feed us all. But we were starving.”
“Can you remember so far back?”
“Of course. Everything. One night I remember my mother was mending by the kerosene lamp in the warehouse we were living in Thessaloniki. My grandmother put her hand on her shoulder.
“Melpo, she said. It is time you thought of yourself.
“My mother said nothing.
“You are young. Your whole life is ahead of you. And what about your children?’
“ ‘Mama,’ my mother answered.
‘Don’t say this.’
“ ‘lt is what I would do. He is my own son, my only son. But it is what you will have to do sooner or later. He will manage somehow, he is a man. Think of yourself as a widow, Melpo. The war will go on for years. You are still beautiful. There are good men who will help you. It is not a sin. You have no money, no home, no food. I mean what I am saying.’
“ ‘No. Your son believes in me and I have always deserved it. I always will.’
“Yiayia shook her scarved head and said nothing more. Her eyelids were wet. My mother went on sewing. My baby brother cried out and I rocked and hushed him back to sleep. When I looked back, my mother was still and sagging over her work, so Yiayia took it away and laid her down to sleep and pulled the flour sack over her. She saw me watching and hugged me.
“ ‘ Aman, paidaki mou,’ she wailed, but quietly. ‘You must be the man of the family now.’
‘I know, Yiayia,’ I said. ‘I am already’.”
He lies still. Kerry bends over and kissed his brown forehead. “I’m nervous,” she says again. Her long soft breasts nudge his ears. He feels her shiver. The gold spokes of sun have gone out of the water, leaving it black.
“Have we known each other long enough? Can we be sure? Long enough to get married?”
“Well, let me see. How long is it?”
“Ten months. No, eleven. What will your mother think?”
“That we should wait. But I don’t want to. You don’t either, do you?”
“No. But she might not like me.”
“Yes. Don’t be too hard on her, will you, if she is rude? And by the way better don’t wear pants.”
“Pants. Trousers? Overalls?
Womans should wear only dresses.”
“Oh, God! I don’t have a dress. Or a skirt. I don’t own one.”
“Oh. Well, never mind. Don’t look like that. No, listen.” He sits up, agitated. “Forget I said it. She can hardly see. Glaucoma.”
“Oh, God! I hope we come through this!”
“Darling, of course we will.”
She grins back at him, pushing her fingers through the shaggy grey curls at his temples. Shadow lies all over the bay and the far city. High above, a gull hangs and sways, silent, its red legs folded, still deeply sunlit. Eleni and Voula, exchanging looks, have served Kerry iced water, a dish of tough green figs in syrup, a glass of Marsala, then Turkish coffee. Flustered, Kerry waits, avoiding Jimmy’s eyes. She feels gruff and uncouth, awkward. A bell rings three times in an other room. “Pane, Dimitri,” Eleni hisses. Jimmy bounds away. Kerry grins blindly at the sisters. When he comes back and leads her to his mother’s room, hot behind brown blinds and stinking of disinfectant, she misses the old woman at first among the jumbled laces and tapestries, the grey and golden faces under glass: a skull on a lace pillow, mottled, and tufted with white down. Only her thick eyes move, red-rimmed, loose in their pleated lids.
“Dimitri?” The voice a hoarse chirrup. “This is Keri?”
“Kerry, yes. I’m glad to meet you, Mrs Yannakopoulou.”
“Good. Thank you for the roses.”
Rumpled and brown, they sag in dim porcelain, mirrored. “Keri is candle in our language. Keri is wox.”
“Yairs. Wox for candle. Dimitri, agori mou, put the lamp, I can see Keri. Now leave us alone. We tok woman-to woman.”
The door closes. Yellow folds of her cheeks move. She is slowly smiling.
“Katse , Keri, siddown.” Kerry sits in the cane armchair by the bed. “My daughters they tell me about you.”
“They’re very nice.”
“Yairs. They like you. They say good thinks about you. She hev a good heart, this filenada of Dzimmy, they say. She love him too much. She good mother for her little boy. Where your husband is, Keri?”
“My ex-husband. In Queensland, as far as I know. We aren’t in touch.”
“Why he leave you? He hev another womans?”
“I don’t know. He’s been gone years.”
“You doan know?”
“No, Mrs Yannakopoulou.”
“You were very yunk.”
“Twenty-two. My son is nine.”
“How old you say?”
“Ach! You speak Greek!”
“Yairs. Is very hard language. How old you are, Keri?”
“Thirty. Yairs. You too old to learn Greek.”
“Oh, I’ll manage. Echo couragio.”
“Couragio! Ah bravo.” A giggle shakes the bedcovers. “Good. You will need thet, if you love Dimitri. He is quiet man. Mysterious. Always he joke. You will need to be stronk. You are, yairs. Not oraia, thet doesun mutter.
How you say?”
“Oraia? Beautiful. I know I’m not.”
“Better not. You not uckly. Too oraia no good. They fall in love with they own faces. They mek the men jealoust.” A smile bares the wires around her loose eyeteeth. “Lonk time now Dimitri tellink me: this woman, this Keri, mama, I want you to meet her. Keri? I say. Her name Kyriaki?
No, he say, she Australian woman, she not Greek. Not Greek, Dimitri? I doan want to meet her. But he keep saying please, mama. Orright, I say. If you thinkink to merry her, orright. Because now I hev not lonk time to live.”
“Oh, Mrs Yannakopoulou —”
“Orright. Is not secret. Everybody know.” Her hand clamps Kerry’s arm.
“And before I go on my lonk, my eternity trip, I want to see my boy heppy.
That is all I want now. You are also mother. You hev a mother heart. You want what is best for your boy. You do anythink for him?”
“Yes, but ”
“You good woman. Good-heart woman. You hev couragio. So mek me one favor. For my boy.”
“Tell Dimitri you woan merry him.
You love him. Orright. I understend love. Love him. Look after him. Live with him, orright. Aman. Doan merry him.”
Kerry pulls her arm away. The lamp casts a wet light on the ravelled cheeks and throat.
“So I’m not good enough.”
“You good. I doan say thet. But divorce woman. Not for Dimitri, no. Not for merry.”
“But he’s divorced!”
“Doesun mutter. Is different. She putana, thet woman. He love her too much but she go with our neighbor, our enemy. Is shame for all our femily. We come to Australia for new life. Is not Dimitri fault.”
“Yes, I know. He told me.”
“Hwat he tell you?”
“It was 20 years ago.”
“His heart break. Some children they find them one night together in the pear orchard: Magda with our enemy. They mother tell me. Dimitri was away. When Magda come home, I tok to her, I tell her I know, all the village know. I cry for my poor son. He will kill you, I say. She cry, she scream. She say she waitink baby. I say we want no bastardo in our femily. I pack all her proika. I say, go and never come back. When he come home, I tell Dimitri.”
The scaled eyes close, wet-rimmed.
“He told me about it. My divorce wasn’t my fault either. And I don’t play around.”
“For Dimitri next time should be only parthena. Veergin.”
“Isn’t that up to Dimitri?”
“Is up to you now. You know thet, Kerri. You can say no. Say wait.”
“And then what?”
“I know Greek girls of good femilies “No. You tried that before. He told me. He wasn’t interested, was he? Why arrange a marriage these days? I love Jimmy. We want to get married fairly soon. I’m going to have a baby. Jimmy’s baby.”
“Hwat? You waitink baby?”
“August. I understend now.”
“So you see ”
“You should be shame!”
“Ashamed of a baby? Why, what’s wrong with it? We aren’t living in the Dark Ages. Jimmy’s very happy. He likes kids. Ben adores him. He’ll be a good father.”
“I understend now why he want to merry you. Apo filotimo! For honor. Because you trick him.”
“No. That isn’t true.”
“You know what womans can do if they doan want baby. You know.”
“I do want the baby. So does he. You have no right ”
“I hev the right of mother. The right of mother who will die soon! My only livink son! Doan break my heart!”
Kerry, her face hot, pats the writh ing yellow hands and stands up.
“I’d better go, Mrs Yannakopoulou.
“Wait! Listen to me: I hev money. Yes, I hev. They doan know nothink. Inside the bed.” She claws at the mattress.
“Gold pounds! Hwere they are?
Take them. Hev the baby. Leave Dimitri alone. Hwere they are?”
“No, thanks.” Kerry pulls a wry face. “I’m sorry about all this. And I was hoping you’d like me.”
The old woman is moaning. Her eyes and mouth clamp shut, and she starts shaking. Kerry shuts the door softly on the dense lamplight and goes on tiptoe to the kitchen. It is full of shrill chatter. Saucepans hiss, bouncing their lids, gushing sunlit steam. All over the table sprawl glowing red and green peppers ready to be stuffed. Jimmy, Eleni, Voula, and three children, all suddenly silent, stare with identical eyes like dates; stare up in alarm.
“Someone better go to her. Quickly”
The sisters hurry off.
“Darling, what’s wrong? What happened?”
“Ask your mother. Can you take me home?”
“Of course. Just let’s wait till she…
“It’s all right, I’ll get a tram. Will you come round later, though, please?”
“Yes, of course. Unless she… ”
“Look, if it’s all off, fair enough. But you’re not to punish me. I wasn’t hard on her.”
“Oh, Kerry, punish? Why would it be all off?”
The children are gazing open mouthed.
“She’ll tell you.”
“You tell me.”
Kerry shakes her head, reddening.
“You are punishing me. Why are you angry?”
The bell rings three times. Jimmy bounds down the passage.
“Mama?” His voice breaks.
“Leave me alone, all of you. And you, go with your putana. Leave me alone.”
She struggles to turn to the shadowed wall. “To fos. Kleis’ to fos.”
He turns off the lamp and ushers his sisters out, though they linger, he knows, whispering behind the door.
“She had to go home.”
“Min klais, mamaka.” He smooths her sodden hair. “No, don’t cry. Don’t cry. No. No.”
“Give me a tablet. No, this ones. Water.” He slips his arm behind her knobbled back as she gulps, flinching.
“Ach. Pikro einai. Bitter.”
“Tell me what happened.”
But she is silent. He picks up the photograph on her dresser. It is one of the last photographs of his father. His father is sitting in the doorway, feeding Eleni’s two little daughters spoonfuls of bread-and-milk. They coaxed him in baby talk for paparitsa. It was his paparitsa, not theirs. It was all he could eat by then. A white hen is tiptoeing past them. Wheat was heaped in the long room that year, a great trickling tawny mountan; the barn was
too full already of barley and sesame. The best harvest since the war, his father said. Bravo, Dimitri. None of them has seen the hen yet. In the light at the door they are like three shadow puppets on a screen. He alone looks frayed, dim, melting in the air. His death is near. He regrets, Dimitri thinks, that I have had no children. No grandchild of my sowing, no grandson to bear his name. Still, he is smiling. In the photograph the bread-and milk bowl is white. In fact, it was butter yellow and, catching the light, glowed in his father’s hands like a harvest moon.
“Mama?” he says softly.
“ Nai .”
“Tell me what happened.”
“She can tell you.”
“Ela. Pes mou.”
“This Keri. She hev not the right name. She not wox. Wox? She stone. Iron.”
“You want her? Hwat for? She not yunk. Not oraia. Not Greek. Not rich.
For proika she hev hwat? A boy. A big boy. She zmok.”
“No.” He grins. “She doesn’t.”
“Australian womans they all zmok. Puff poof. Puff poof.”
“Dimitraki, listen to me. I know you like I know my hand. You my son. You doan love Keri.” She hesitates, then dares: “Not like you love Magda.”
“Don’t talk about Magda.”
“I save you thet time.”
“Magda is gone. Don’t talk about it. I love Kerry and you know it.’-’
“She waitink baby.”
“You should tell me this. Not Keri.”
She sighs. “Orright. Merry her. I am too tired. Do hwat you want.”
“August. Aman. I never live to see your little one.”
“Tell Keri if it is girl, she must not call her Melpo.”
“You tell her. Next time she comes.”
“I never see her again.”
“You know,” he sighs, “that if I have a girl, I will call her Melpo.”
“I doan want you to!”
“You do so.”
“Aman, Dimitri mou. Put me rodostamo.”
He tips red rosewater into his palm and sits stroking it over her cheeks and forehead and whimpering throat, the thin, loose, spotted skin of her forearms.
“Her heart is stone.”
“No. She is strong. Like you, she has had to be.”
“She will control your life, you want thet?”
“I think I can get used to it.”
“Well. I done my best. I hope you woan be sorry.”
“Thank you, mama.”
He bends and kisses her ruffled cheek. Her eyes close.
“Ela pio konta,” she whispers.
“Closer. I have gold pounds inside the bed. Your Aunt Sophia’s. Ach, if I had them in the war! The baby died from hunger. Take them, paidi mou. Doan tell the girls. Take them for your baby.”
“Aman, mama. You gave them to Magda. You drove her away. And I forgave you. Remember?
“For your good. For honor.”
But only after years, mama, he thinks. Bitter years.
“Sleep,” he says.
“I earn. I pain too much. Go and tell Eleni to come. Bring a clean sheet, tell her. When she goes, come back. Sit with me.”
“Can I do anything?”
“Nothink. Maybe Keri waitink you?”
“She will understand.”
“No. Go to her. When I was yunk, I was stronk. And oraia also.”
“I know. There was not a woman like you in all Makedonia. You had a spirit like fire.”
“Hold my hend, Dimitri. Hold my hend.”
One day when you are not tired, mama, he thinks, I must ask you: do you remember the storm, that last summer in the village, before the war, when I was five? You sat on the porch in this cane armchair suckling Eleni. The rain was a grey wall. Hens shot past us, slithering in the brown mud. The clouds were slashed by spokes of sunlight. Afterwards I led the horse out, fighting to hold his head down, but he tore at the grape vine, splashing rain in clusters on us all. White-eyed, his dark silver hide shivering, he munched vine leaves. I was angry. You laughed so much, Eleni lost your nipple, and kicked and wailed. Then I laughed too. Remember how we stood in the river thigh-deep, slipping on bronze rocks. You taught me to catch little fish in my hands. We threaded them on the green stalks of water plants.
- Beverley Farmer married a Greek-Australian, Christos Talihmanidis, in 1965. They went to live in Greece with his parents in 1969, in a village north of Thessalonika. She wrote her first novel while in Greece titled, Alone. They returned to Australia for the birth of their son in 1972. He was baptized and they renewed their marriage vows in 1974 in an Orthodox wedding in Greece. They separated in 1976, and later divorced.Farmer’s time in Greece has had an important influence on her writing. Alone was published in 1980. Her first collection of short stories, Milk, was published in 1983, and many of these stories were influenced by her Greek experiences, displaying a connectedness with the country and its people. She has since visited Greece regularly.The stories in Farmer’s collections, Milk and Home Time, relate to issues concerning domestic life and emotional issues. Farmer has also written a writer’s notebook, A Body of Water, including poems, quotations and other observations, which is partly autobiographical. [source: https://www.tssm.com.au]