I clamber down the stairs to Argiroupole metro station, heading to work, in central Athens. She’s sitting in one of the benches there, dark-skinned, dark-haired, probably a Roma, in her twenties. A long, limp pony tail, a shabby, red T-shirt, a flared, flowery skirt, tattered flip-flops. An equally scruffy two or three-year-old boy is wringing out of her grasp.
‘I know you and dad wanted something else for me but- Yeah, a rich, pot-bellied prince. You think mine is a frog, eh? He loves me to bits, mum; he really cares, that’s what matters.’ Sonia punches the pen’s tip fast against the notepad on the coffee table, peppering the white sheet with inky dots. ‘We’ll find something to eat. He’ll get a job.
Tzoras jots down the date of the primary school students’ last excursion this year. A week before his son’s University entrance exams. He couldn’t possibly be absent from this critical moment in his son’s life.
He unlocks the top desk drawer and takes out a deck of cards with famous actresses on he’d bought on an educational trip to Thessaloniki. He counts them. Fifty one. One’s missing. Fingers move deep into the drawer, through grade books and the register, under the desk pad. Nowhere.
The bus is crammed; people jostle in the aisle, swinging hither and thither at the driver’s sudden brakes and swerves. A baby howls, an old lady flaps her fan against her flushed face.
Then the bus stops. It takes a while. An armed soldier gets off to inspect the road. Pitch dark. A roar is heard, a gunshot. The second soldier follows suit. He never comes back. The passengers stare out the window and at each other alert. Somebody knocks on the front door. The driver opens and a man, face distorted, reddish saliva dripping down his bloodied teeth – a zombie – bursts in, lunges at whomever he comes across, bites them hard on the neck. Screams and moans fill the bus. The ones that have been bitten become infected and maul the ones sitting next to them until everyone, except for the driver, runs amok, becomes a zombie.
‘Mum! Look! A spider! Kill it!’ Belly still working on my web, I goggle down at the small boy’s pink finger pointing at me like a huge, wriggling worm. Oh, no, I think. I’ ve been spinning this web in a corner of the kitchen ceiling for ages and this little bugger here wants to wipe it out in a flash and, worse, do me in. Why do humans loathe us so much? We never do any harm.
He pushes the heavy iron gate open by the bars, flakes of peeling paint chafing his cold palms. The soles of his shoes scrunch against the grainy soil the pouring rain had carried this afternoon from the garden down the marble stairs, landing in small, grungy pools on the dirt road. He can feel the wet weather in his bones as he climbs up the steep, narrow steps, the night air heavy and cool on his cheeks.
I have always loved pets, particularly cats. I have, really. It is true that when my dear husband died I set my mind on buying a feline to keep me company. A quiet, good-mannered Persian one I had spotted in the shop window of the big pet shop downtown. Until I heard from the shop assistant there that it would need to be groomed daily. That put me off buying it. Too much trouble, I thought and figured I could do without a companion for a while.
Strategoula’s square jaw tightened as I pulled her messy, straw-blonde hair hard at the back, like plucking a dead chicken off its feathers. Her head bounced back and forth as if joined with her shoulders by bed springs. She reiterated by kicking me hard in the stomach and then I felt her pincers-firm grip on my left wrist.
You know what struck me the most when I saw you lying flat on the hospital bed? I realized I’d never seen you without your impeccable false teeth. You looked older, defenseless, robbed from authority. A catatonic man with cheeks sunken along the gums that framed a wide dark cave of a mouth, a forehead jutting out of the white pillow, wet wisps of hair drowning underneath.