Loula S. Rodopoulos
‘We stink! Only hot water can wash the dirt off,’ Bekim says to Artan, dusting down his work clothes. Artan is sipping water from a communal tap outside the shower and toilet block in the park.
The park is situated on the highest point of the town overlooking the Corinthian Gulf. A multicoloured bed of roses lines one perimeter and tall conifers and fir trees are scattered over the grass. Asphalt paths, edged with wooden benches, lead to the ornamental iron gates located on each side of its four perimeters. A small bridge stretches across a lake hidden by pampas grass and shrubs. The townsfolk, who live in the surrounding high rise apartments, gather in the park to walk, talk and relax. The boys find an empty bench and Artan twists off the caps of two bottles of beer and offers one to Bekim. They take long gulps and wipe their mouths with the sleeves of their work clothes.
‘Y-y-yes, it’s a p-p-pity w-w-we smell,’ Artan says,‘s-s-some nice tarts strut through here! W-w-we can only watch.’ Artan is tall and gawky. He stutters as his body twitches nervously.
‘All you think about is tarts!’ says Bekim. ‘I hate working in the dirt and taking cold showers. Mum always boiled hot water over the fire. We never smelt at home-even if we had little to eat!’
The teenagers, Bekim and Artan, could be mistaken for brothers. Their build is thin, their hair blonde.
‘W-w-what can w-we do? There’s only h-hot water in the room in the morning!’ Artan throws his empty beer bottle down on to the grass.
Artan and Bekim work as labourers on an unfinished towering apartment block that casts an unwelcome shadow over the park. Every afternoon, when they knock off work, they shower then sit on one of the park benches.
At twilight a group of older Albanian men gather in the park and sit at a large wooden table. Some play cards others backgammon. On the opposite side of the park women domestics from the Ukraine, Bulgaria, Albania and Romania congregate around the play equipment. They chat in their first language breaking into clumsy Greek as they caution, comfort or chastise the children in their care.
‘No one speaks to us in the park after all the months we’ve been here.’ Artan says.
‘Can you play backgammon? We could join those men.’ Bekim points to the men sitting at the table.
‘N-n- no! They’re s-s-shit like my dad!’ Artan shakes his head furiously.
‘So we’re shit too?’ Bekim responds.
‘L-l-look school’s out.’ Artan points to the bench on the opposite path where some school girls are gathering.
Artan and Bekim watch the girls as another girl, carrying a tray of polystyrene cups of coffee and a paper plate filled with cakes, joins them. The girl is plump and wears sneakers, tight black jeans and a green shirt that barely covers her protruding stomach. A red scarf is tied around her neck. A large canvas black bag, imprinted with a photo of Marilyn Monroe, hangs from one shoulder. Artan stares at her. She returns his gaze, says something to the girls and a ripple of laughter erupts.
‘M-M-Marilyn Monroe l-l looks friendly’ says Artan.
‘Don’t be fooled by their giggles,’ says Bekim, ‘Greek girls think we’re sleazes. When I have plenty of Euros I’m going to marry an Albanian girl and bring her back here.’
‘W-w- we’re nothing.’ Artan lowers his head then looks up and stares at Marilyn Monroe.
Artan had often walked past the crowded deck chairs lined up outside the nearby cake and coffee café near the park. On one occasion he’d sauntered into the café and peered at the cream laden cakes, ice creams and pastries in the refrigerated showcase. He loved the way in which the men congregated in one corner of the café, near the front window and pulled their chairs into a circle to chat and sip their thick Turkish coffee. He’d watched as old men tried to impress girls young enough to be their daughter. He longed to find a girlfriend and to shout her coffee.
‘Here she is again!’ Bekim nods towards a middle aged woman seated on another bench. She clutches a worn leather handbag. Her head, covered with a black scarf, is bent over her cupped hands as she lights her cigarette.
‘S-s-she’s here every day.’ Artan mimics her posture.
‘Don’t be rude. She reminds me of Mum. I’m going to speak to her.’
Bekim walks over to the woman.
‘Can I sit here?’ Bekim asks in Albanian and points to the empty space on the bench.
The woman looks at him warily then nods and turns her back to him.
‘I’m Bekim. Do you work here?’
‘Yes,’ the woman turns and smiles faintly, ‘I’m Adelina.’
‘Do you have family here?’
‘No. I left my husband and my mother looks after my two sons.’
‘How old are your sons?’
‘Twelve and eighteen.’
‘Do you go back to see them?’
‘I can’t afford the bus fare. I send money when I can.’
‘Where do you live?’
‘Over there.’ Adelina waves her hand in the direction of an apartment block that stands next to his work site.
‘Where do you work?’
‘I work for the lady I live with.’
‘An old lady?’
‘Yes. She’s sick. I do everything for her but she hates me. She padlocks her fridge so I won’t steal her food. She says that the park is full of foreigners! What can I do?’ Adelina offers a cigarette to Bekim. He refuses.
‘We’ll talk again tomorrow.’ Bekim touches her lightly on the shoulder in farewell.
‘Well you’ve found an old t- t-tart!’ Artan teases.
‘Shut up Artan. She’s alone – no family here. Hey, look how the girls are eyeing that gypsy.’ Bekim nudges Artan in the ribs.
The brown haired adolescent gypsy is dressed in a red striped parka, runners and tracksuit. He sits on a bench near the schoolgirls. His eyes are bloodshot, his nose tinged red. He leans his head against the back of the bench and closes his eyes. From time to time he blows his nose on a café serviette. Each time he opens his eyes he leans down in front of the bench and checks the large black plastic bag he has wedged between his feet. Artan looks up as Marilyn Monroe approaches the gypsy and offers him a bottle of water. The gypsy smiles at her but waves her away.
‘Strange – a Greek girl speaking to a gypsy, ‘Bekim says, ‘they hate them more than us. It’s time to get something to eat. We can pick up a couple of souvlaki.’ Bekim gets up from the bench and picks up his bag.’
‘Yeh – l-l-lazy, b-b-beggars.’ Artan gathers his belongings but does not move. Marilyn Monroe is looking his way.
‘You stay for a bit. I’ll get the souvlaki.’ Bekim moves off quickly. A cacophony of birds perched on a giant pine tree, signals nightfall. A barking dog, trapped on a narrow balcony of an apartment block, endeavours to drown out the noise.
Bekim is glad to escape from the park and Artan for a while. He’d met him on his first crossing into Greece. He felt sorry for him. Artan was always jumpy and secretive. As “illegals” they shared the experiences of leaving families to find work, crossing the border under the cover of darkness and evading police scrutiny. Unlike Artan though, Bekim wanted to finish school and go to university.
Bekim walks through the narrow streets of the town that overflows with cars and motorbikes to the main square surrounded by souvlaki and coffee shops. Men walk up and down the square swinging worry beads; others sit at the outdoor tables and pluck burnt meat off a souvlaki stick with their teeth. Rows of pigeons perch on overhanging electrical wires waiting to pounce on a discarded morsel.
Back in the park Marilyn Monroe walks toward the rubbish bin near the bench where Artan sits. She holds an empty cup in one hand and a confectionary wrapper in the other. She twirls it tight between her fingers then stops, turns and bends down searching the path behind her.
‘Hey! Hey! Lost s-s-some-t-t-thing?’ Artan calls out to her in Greek.
‘I dropped the lollies I kept for you and your friend. You looked lonely,’ the girl replies in Albanian.
‘Oh! You’re Albanian. H-h-how come you h-h-hang out with Greek girls?’
‘I go to school with them. I was born here. What about you?’
‘N-n-no family here. W-w-we work here. I’m Artan.’
‘I’m Blerte. Where’s your friend?’
‘Bekim’s g-g-gone to buy souvlaki.’
‘I thought you’d like to join us.’
‘O-o-oh! W-w-why?’ Artan moves closer to Blerte.
‘Good for the girls to meet other Albanians.’ Blerte sighs but hesitates to tell Artan that she bought the girls some goodies every day to cultivate their friendship.
‘They never invite me home. It’s lonely at school.’
Artan looks at Blerte sympathetically. ‘O-o-oh I thought Greeks o-o-only hated illegals.’
‘Will you be in the park tomorrow?’ Blerte smiles at Artan.
‘Y-y- yes,’ Artan nods, ‘I’d better go now. The souvlaki will get cold.’ Artan waves to Blerte as he walks out of the gate.
‘See you tomorrow.’ Blerte waves back to him.
The next evening Artan showers thoroughly, rubbing his body with a dreg of soap. He changes into jeans, t-shirts and sneakers and joins Bekim who has dusted down his work clothes and is perched on the backrest of a bench. They munch biscuits as Bekim looks around for Adelina and Artan waits anxiously for Blerte to appear.
‘The girls might n-n-not come t-t-tonight.’ Artan says sprinkling biscuit crumbs on the grass for the birds.
‘Maybe school finishes late this afternoon,’ Bekim says, rustling open a small bag of pumpkin seeds and offering some to Artan. ‘I wish I was still a school boy!’
‘N-n-not me! N-n-not me! I hated school. B-b-better here, here- a-a-away from my d-d-dad.’
Bekim looks intently at Artan as he begins to twitch uncontrollably.
‘What’s wrong? What are you scared of?’
Artan does not answer. He wraps his arms around his chest endeavouring to stop the tremors.
‘Hey, that’s the gypsy who was here yesterday.’ Bekim says, as the gypsy walks quickly towards them shaking his fist at Artan.
‘You stole my bag.’ He lifts his hand to hit Artan but Bekim jumps up from the bench and stands between them.
‘What you’re doing? Artan was with me. He hasn’t stolen anything.’
‘You left,’ the gypsy says shaking his fist again, ‘he flirted with the fat girl-then left in a hurry.’
‘Yes-so the souvlaki didn’t get cold! No bag.’ Bekim says.
‘You lot always hangs out together.’
‘We don’t steal. You had your eyes closed most of the time. Anyone could have picked it up. Have you been to the police?’
‘No police, no police! I must find it.’
‘What’s in it?’ Bekim persists.
‘Not your business. I need my bag.’
‘Where do you sleep?’
The gypsy does not answer. He turns away from the boys as the schoolgirls’ tumble into the park.
‘H-h-here they are! D-d-did you see his bag?’ Artan shouts, grinning, as he waves to Blerte who drags a black plastic bag behind her.
‘That’s my bag!’ The gypsy shouts at her, ‘why did you steal it?’
‘I didn’t steal it. You walked off last night- forgot it. I chased after you but you had disappeared.’
The gypsy grabs the bag and moves as if to run off but pauses and turns angrily to Blerte, ‘Did you open it?’
‘Yes, I looked for a name and address to bring it to you. All I found was some clothes and a lot of Euros.’
‘You’re stupid! I don’t have an address!’ The gypsy grabs the bag and dashes into the bushes that surround the lake. ‘Liar, something is missing!’ he yells at Blerte as he comes out from the bushes shaking a thick bundle of Euros at her.
‘No way! I didn’t take anything.’
‘Off you go now,’ Bekim says, waving the gypsy away, ‘you should thank the girl for returning your bag. She could have dumped it in a rubbish bin. You still have your Euros so why all the fuss?’
‘I’ll be back. Don’t think that you can get away with this.’ The gypsy glares at Blerte as he slinks away out of the gates in the direction of the computer games parlour.
Blerte turns to Artan. ‘We’ll that’s enough adventure for today.’
Bekim looks suspiciously at Blerte and Artan as he leaves the bench and walks over to Adelina. He ignores the chatter of the schoolgirls who have now surrounded the pair.
The previous evening, after Artan had left the park, Blerte noticed the black plastic bag lying under the bench where the gypsy had been sitting. She went through it looking for an address. She then decided to take it home.
‘Wow,’ says Artan to Blerte-d-d-did you keep some Euros?
Blerte beckons to Artan to move behind a trunk of a pine tree, out of sight of the others in the park.
‘No! Can I trust you?’
‘W-w-why do you ask?’
‘Where’s your friend? He didn’t speak to me!’
‘He’s talking to a woman over there on the bench.’ Artan points to Bekim who is bending down to pick up some oranges that have spilled out of Adelina’s shopping bag.
Blerte carefully pulls out a small package, crumpled in newspaper, from under her skivvy and giggles, ‘I bet the gypsy was selling weed. That’s what’s in this package! I kept it to share with the girls.’
Artan raises his hands as if to snatch the package from her. He twitches from side to side as Blerte backs away and holds her hand up ready to push him away. ‘Hey, don’t touch me,’ she pushes the package back under her skivvy, ‘I thought I’d try it with the girls tonight.’
‘H-h-how many Euros for a p-p-puff?’
‘No, no way,’ Artan says, ‘w-w-we should sell it.’
‘What do you mean “we”? It’s mine,’ Blerte backs away from Artan clutching her package, ‘I’m sharing it with the girls.’
‘N-n-now that I know I-I-I’ll tell the gypsy?’ Artan glares at Blerte and hops back and forth on his feet punching his fists in the air.
Blerte moves into the sight of the girls and yells out to them.
‘Get him away from me – the stuttering fool.’
Bekim, hearing the commotion, strides across the grass to see what’s happening.
‘What the hell Artan? What’s going on?’ Bekim drags Artan away from Blerte, holds his shoulders tight and peers into his face.
‘He’s threatening me!’ Blerte turns to Bekim, ‘he tried to grab, then to hit me’.
‘Y-y-you lying tart! You stole the gypsy’s w-w weed!’
Artan, held firmly by Bekim, begins to shake violently. Bekim’s grip reminds him of how his drunken father belted him and his mother. Artan would pull himself out of his father’s grip, fists held high, and dart from side to side trying to avoid his father’s blows. One evening his father bashed him so badly that he ran away and joined a street gang that trafficked drugs over the border into Greece. It was on one such crossing that he’d met Bekim who’d persuaded him to leave the gang to work as a labourer.
The gypsy crouches in his favourite spot, a locked side door alcove alongside the computer games parlour – a stone’s throw away from the park. He shivers, pulling his parka around his chest. His face is red with fever. He can hear the gleeful sparring of the young men in the parlor as they play their war games – and the loud “bang –bang” as they score. He’s warmed by the thick haze of cigarette smoke that wafts from under the side door. I’d better move away – before they find out I have no weed to sell – and before that wretched girl goes to the police. He thought. He gathers up his bag and walks briskly in the direction of the bus stop.
Meanwhile, back in the park Bekim has dragged Artan away from Blerte.
‘What the hell Artan? What got into you? She’s a tart that peddles drugs.’
‘N-n-no just unhappy – she wants a friend. S-s-she found w-w-weed in the gypsy’s bag. I-I told her we should s-s-sell it.’
‘You must be joking! If you’re caught you’d be sent back over the border. Better we separate.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’m leaving the room anyway. I’m going to rent a place with the Adelina. We come from the same town and Mum knows the family. We’ll look after each other.’
‘S-s-sorry Bekim y-y-you’re my friend. What will I do without you?’ Artan’s chin rests on his chest as he fights back tears.
‘We’ll still work together but if you get into trouble that’s it!’
Night shrouds the park. A couple kisses on a bench nearby. An old man hobbles past on a walking stick. As a church bell echoes across the town Bekim hugs the trembling Artan and leaves him curled up on the bench.
After awhile Artan’s tears are placated by a girl’s voice.
‘Do you want some cake?’ Blerte sits down next to Artan and offers him a hand rolled smoke.
Prof. Loula S. Rodopoulos
Loula sent this to be published at Diasporic
a few days before her passing away
we will always remember her