The short story below was published in June 2010, in a book entitled ‘Narratives of a still time’ (αφηγήσεις μιας αγκυλωμένης εποχής, Εκδόσεις Νησίδες), in Thessaloniki, Greece. It was written at some point of late 2006. The originally Greek text was then translated into Spanish – from the English translation presented below – to appear in a Spanish edition of short stories.
The following story comes from a-not-so-distant past and a-not-so-distant place. A different place though, that hardly exists today. Distance is not meant to comfort or to exoticize. The differences that the reader may encounter, relating to a foreign place, could also open the path towards recognition. Τhe recognition of the commonness that unfolds when different people meet and identify with each other, while discovering common events, similar references and shared narratives.
It was the first summer; the first summer to break free from parental control, taking a few days on their own at one’s family summerhouse; the summer house with the big palm tree.
But even before that, there was all that partying that preceded: staying up until late at friends’ homes, from one weekend to the next throughout springtime and June. There were beers, lots of dancing, and girls, girlfriends of friends and cousins of friends, as well as new faces popping up out of nowhere, interrupting the limited horizon of the school community.
It was the summer of the year when that song came out. It was the summer of the year that Nirvana got worldwide attention, triggering the youth in a way that the Sex Pistols did. The year that the Valentines were recording the “loveless” album, while living in the studio and loosing track of time. It was the summer after the school year when the mass school protests and occupations occurred there that swept the country for months, against educational reforms; the summer after gymnasium, right before high school.
In the margins of such an unprecedented state of wildness, a deliberate solitude that laid in between songs was stemming from those promising that their intentions would last forever; those giving oaths that were for real, full of certainties on things that were coming to a new beginning, another of its kind, for a new generation, another hopeful beginning, where everything seemed to be starting all over and over again.
But it would always be friends to save from the verge of darkness on the very last minute, stifling the time in wild dancing.
There was no sufficient reason to be blue. Yet girls always seemed to be standing one step away against them, and never on their side, making cracks in the spoiled, protected harmony of middle class upbringings. The girls were there, making their presence known to those just popping out of boyhood, offering them sleepless nights and horrible frustration, mute pain and plenty of imaginary utterances for possibilities that lacked words or courage, grounding them in a state of permanent unpreparedness, in a state of constant alert as a sort of a prolonged school examination. But it would happen. It just had to: soon.
They all looked like altar boys back then; not properly shaving, but yet, with sort of the Cure-like hairstyles, imitating bands.
They were free for the first time. Free for what though? None of them knew exactly. Freedom was hanging like a faint impression of a vague promise, caught in between tunes and lyrics: an enigma that confronted them in the eyes of teenage girls that could not be avoided.
One’s mom urged him to return home at once, when she found out they had left on their own; yet he firmly refused to abandon the group and betray the promise of an adventure, by hanging the phone to her. His steadiness quickly gained the support of others, who soon left the teasing aside.
The beach in front of the summer house with the large palm tree was empty. A beach that looked kind of private, reserved – or rather occupied – by an elder upper class, swimming in shallow waters.
Not so further away, foreign smiley girls appearing carefree, devoured their petty tourist fantasies in the controlled, dull luxuries offerd by the tourist industry, caring for nothing close to the sort of the young guys’ concerns. Introvert, isolated to their own, the German girls looked as if they had never left their own home, or rather, as if they had come along it, like snails do. Carrying the kind of blessing of eternal happiness found in TV ads, they enjoyed the sea for the limited days of their vacation in a rather automated way, carrying not regrets.
The boys only gazed them from afar, not knowing what to say, or how to say it. They still did not know how to manage or stream the freedom they were eager to share, or to discover. And so they waited.
They began to organize. The days of freedom were few and it was a unique opportunity, “the only opportunity”, as the one quarrelling with his mom announced to them, in search of the event, of the vertical moment that would convert the dullness of classrooms and school life retrospectivelly, in a crescendo of a finally fulfilled anticipation. The rest of them reserved some doubt. And maybe they were right; one should not get too obsessed with possibilities.
But at least everyone agreed on one thing: that they were grown enough and were ready for it, and that “it simply could not be prolonged anymore.”
But where could they be met though? That was another problem that those school mates were confronted with, in the open-ended space that laid outside the school-family universe.
“To the clubs, that’s where girls go to” one confidently argued. The others hesitated. But in the end they got convinced: the club would be the only place to meet girls.
However, as soon as the father of another of them found out about their plans, he tried to sabotage them.
”What exactly will you do there?” he reprimanded, pretending to speak the language of the common sense.
“What else to do?” the guys argued.
“Well, why don’t you go and have a close look the construction sites? You can surely learn something useful out there; massive hotels are being built. Well-off people from all over the country are investing, even foreigners do, business opportunities are flourishing in our regions! There is no time to waste. The future does not wait! The future lays for those that can tame it, not for those that will waste it! Soon you’ll turn to adults, soon you will enter the real life where responsibilities will not wait for you. It’s about time you get serious and do something worth with your time. You cannot just fool around like children, like tourists bums, going to discos!” replied the father, fully certain of what he was talking about.
A police pensioner, with the habit (the responsibility as himself would put it) to inspect his surroundings. In the coming winter, he would try to scare the guys off from corrupting his son with their senseless habits and absurd looks, by raiding the school yard during school breaks. The guys would slowly learn to avoid and to mock him as well.
He was the typical figure to be found all over Greece but probably elsewhere too, devoted to “national” concerns. He belonged to the caste of those retired elders who become parliamentarians for either the conservatives or the social democrats (the difference of who even from back then, was only a matter of a name and not politics). His kind sustained alive the ideology of the “gyps frame” in the country, the Junta’s ideology.
In every case, they could certainly not be fooled by the foundations of any tourist resort on the making. There just wasn’t anything to attract any kind of interest there + for instance some narrative or rumor on a hidden treasure, antiquities, a corpse, a natural phenomenon, or something worth noticing. His suggestion was dull and only meant to distract and to discipline them to his own ideals and morals. His suggestion was an intervention to curb their fresh developing encounters, an intervention that meant to guide and to seduce them to his own ways, to his own goals.
In the years to come, the same elder would attempt to end a relationship of his son to someone he opposed for reasons he would not reveal: his son’s relationship to someone that only cared about money, someone just like his mother; someone that paradoxically was rejected by his mother.
Weary and inexperienced, his son would learn to succumb and resign not by his own will but by calculus, and only 10 years later from the point of this story, he would learn to laugh on the others of his group of those days, particularly to those that “failed” by his standards, to those that became “losers” in his perspective. Many though would return him the favor, laughing at both him and his dad. Just as they did with him, cautiously, also back then.
They’d already discover his not-so-hidden story, the story of the now retired police officer, who appeared to have been miraculously transferred a couple of decades earlier from Athens to the province, as soon as the Junta collapsed, like several other prominent police officers and military personnel did, scattering to the four corners of the country until the claim for justice and the people’s rage against the Junta’s crimes, would settle down a bit.
It was himself, his wife and their spinster daughter that stood among other similarly dressed parents outside the school yard during the long school protests and occupations of that previous winter, raging and slandering, and giving outraged performances, pretending to belong to the class of the “real” unprivileged, urging their children not to participate in the movement. The kids though, covered with hoods on their heads and scarfs on their faces, while locked inside the occupied school buildings would point the finger at them, shout back at them, swear at them, and later escape –when the movement was collapsing after the murder of the maths’ professor that supported the high school protests by reactionary scums that raided schools armed with clubs, chains and iron fists during nights, the ONNED members -the youth of the governing party at the January 1991 events at Patras- through the backyard and the rear in lawns.
Hotels kept being built. They still are. Covering the once empty shores with cement and following the example of the Spanish coasts.
Yet things back then seemed somehow stable and different from what summers appear to be nowadays; yet lots of things were still happening during that summer too; but the young –to their benefit- lacked a historical horizon to frame their present.
There were also fewer things dividing them. They were more of a group really, than individuals. Or in every case, what divided them reserved a piece for negotiation within it. They were together back then, joint as comrades, as brothers.
Nevertheless, different things were at stake for each one of them, something that was already underlining differences that would only augment in the years to come, making them follow separate paths; the covering up of such differences proved to work better for some and worse to others. As the film by Papatakis said, the rich kids know how to protect themselves from the poor ones, whereas the poor don’t know how to protect themselves from the rich.
They had some hints on where to go to. They’d try to seek for the places where the cool kids would hang out, the guys dressed in black who did their hair like Robert Smith; they’d discover a real Cure fan community. They surely were the ones with the best chicks. The group of friends would discover those living in the underground, away from all the crap. They’d make it to the front line, to the avant garde; they’d meet the chicks and they’d be recognised and introduced to the underground. For sure something else lied there. They were there to find out.
They wore their nice black shirts -one of them put his beret on. Then they made a move towards the club.
The club was called “Cocos” and laid in the woods. Its sign outside was written with old tires. It wasn’t anything fancy really; one could actually say that it was a rather lame and pretentious place that did not make any sense with the dazzling nature around, or with what the charming villages of the peninsula looked like. Cut out of nowhere, it was only another monument of a crude and vulgar imposition of a retarded modernity. But yet, it was a space of freedom, to the minds of the particular bunch. They did not know something of a different sort; they did not know that there are different ways to do things, different ways to make contacts, or even, different and nicer kinds of clubs. And some never really learned to distinguish that.
They were on their own, and to their disappointment, the Goths and the rest of the imagined communities of underground youths were still absent from that particular place.
They occupied a spot in a corner and started drinking different kinds of shots, in all colors.
Time was passing and the mods, the punks, the new wavers, the ravers would still not show up. Most importantly, neither would the girls show up. Instead, the disco was full of a different crowd, of the local sort. As time was passing, natives were flooding the place. Locals with cowboy boots, drinking whiskey on the rocks (even though most likely they hated it and surely took them a while to get use to it), summer wooden clogs, gold neck chains, bandanas on the head, American flag t-shirts or t-shirts with absurd statements like “no problem”, mane hairstyles, already retro as the 1980’s had just passed, but by now, a sign of authenticity that kept them in style, identifying resistance to the whirlwind of newer trends that surpassed them. Various sorts of pretentious ‘eternal’ youngsters, stuck in roles of provincial statism, with their names converted to their English version, Steve or Johnny, along with village girls in lame hairstyles, extravagantly dressed according to what they were fed by telly.
But in the table they were sat, all was rolling smoothly and fine. Soon they started overcoming the initial numbness they were caught by while exploring a new field of action, at the starting of a new decade.
While nothing much was happening, “the Charlatans’” mesmerising intro of that cool new Manchester sound, suddenly came to the decks rather unexpectedly. The tune immediately set them on fire throwing the bunch of friends reflexively on the empty dance floor, like fireworks. They took off, dancing like crazy. They were the only ones dancing and would refuse to dance to anything else other than that!
The locals did not attempt any interference. Nobody tried to stop them, perhaps for the very first time in their lives.
And then came the Smiths, the Happy Mondays, the Soup Dragons, the Stone Roses, the Ramones, the Violent Femmes, Stooges and Iggy, the Clash, Lenny Cravitz … with the Cure finally served to them at last, again and again, a clear sign that the Dee Jay was a hidden companion, an underground comrade spotting them, feeding them, encouraging and keeping the main disco crowd away, handing the club to those who had just won it.
While listening to their heroes, the kids solemnly danced all night long.
Girls did not eventually appear. But it was ok as it was just one night, with plenty of other stuff happening. It was only the guy in beret that begun chatting to a couple of British women, appearing to be in their thirties, that approached him to ask whether he was British as well. In order not to spoil it for them, he apparently nodded affirmation and found himself in discussions about Greece, although he still did not have anything to compare his own country with, and although he hardly spoke English (hell, he hardly spoke Greek for the matter of speaking). When the others naturally spoke to him their mother tong, the English women left, having realised his fraud. He remained cool, as in every case, his test, his performance worked fine, from the background, without trying too much; he remained a guy appearing in the background, even when he was coming out forth.
The friends remained on the spot until the club finally closed down. Even though the girls never came, and neither did the dark guys that looked like the Cure, in the place of whom, it was those very kids themselves that had stood for. For, the latter was proven by the set list on the decks, which was based on them.
They finally reached a dead end though, when they found themselves stuck in the crude reality of the highways outside the music realm. With no means of transportation of their own and no public transport running at that point, with no cabs in sight (from the few ones that were running the peninsula), they were far away from the house with the palm tree where they were secretly making their small and naïve plans.
While waiting by the highway for some taxi to come, one of them started playing with his shirt imitating rally races with the passing cars. Some got into worries.
In the lack of alternatives, in the absence of cabs and public telephones nearby, they gathered again to decide what to be done. They could also do nothing and just hang out until dawn. Or they could walk.
The latter actually seemed to be the proper thing to do; although the house with the big palm tree was about 15 kilometers and three villages away.
It wasn’t that hard if one would think about it seriously. It was just a straight line to be followed, in places that were well known to them after years of family vacations. If one took the coastal roads, one would eventually be led to the spot.
The abandoning of the highway sparkled enthusiasm again; it was quiet and charming and cool there, in the small roads among the willow trees, by the sea; but mainly because among themselves, they were all for one and one for all.
And so they walked across the long path where the road on the side of the sea was full of tourist resort complexes, built from the 1970’s and on, that were deserted during winter time, forming ghost towns, like walls fencing the beaches. These construction complexes would follow the outskirts of each village like long tails, and would stretch out from one village till the next, in ways that made it difficult to the one that didn’t knew -to the naïve charter tourist who wouldn’t ask much about the place itself, beyond directions for the experience-scape of tourist wonder that was trained to- that there once laid separate old villages, still somehow architecturally distinct.
In small gaps of the few remaining empty spaces, weeping willows and reeds would rustle in the night breeze, with their branches and leaves glittering in the moonlight and the street lights.
Every now and then, the restless sea would appear, the calmly passionate Aegean in its dark shade, mauve, black, glittering while meeting the moon, shiny in the places where red and yellow lights from fishing boats would sparkle. Further away, one could see the fading lights of the villages from the leg of the opposite peninsula. Behind the glare of electricity, and further above, quiet olive groves were stretching over the road left to the sea, ending up where the huge pine tree forests would take over; magnificent forests that sixteen years later would be torched to vast flames and turned into depressing ashes -a desert land full of dead animals- made visible during the night even from across the sea at the West, by mount Pilion where centaurs ones resided, gazed by puzzled beings who were forced to witness or rather watch, like Nero -yet unconsciously – the wild fires that was later said were set by a known bourgeois of the country, in order to create further business opportunities, for more hotels and even more tourist resorts.
But still, back then, during those days, none seemed to be afraid of much. They all had the good on their side. Everything was clear, while evil seemed isolated in distant times and spaces, demarcated in distinguished figures, sealed away from their small universe. All that was there and then, in the sublime experiencing of a commonness rediscovered through the senses of freedom, was the roads of their country. The roads that were becoming their own, with all possibilities appearing to be starting from those lonely provincial paths, and connecting to the paths and the crossroads of the entire world and all history.
The inexplicable joy in their hearts -forgetting all about duties and insignificant differences between them- came into singing, singing along to their favorite verses, with prose, more dancing, laughs and sketches. The Cure again, “the walk”, became the soundtrack of their own walk. Although the lyrics didn’t really fit, they made good sense to dress their short adventure up, competing on mockery of the song’s verses, sounding absurd when translated directly into their mother tong “I saw you look like Japanese baby, in an instant, I remembered everything”.
By a small beach next to the road, they stopped. Dawn was approaching.
One of them dived for a night swim in the cooled night waters, under a starry night sky.
Soon after, they continued walking.
At dawn, the long uphill paved with coarse gravel begun appearing from afar. It was the last path before one reached the house with the big palm tree.
The song that none of them knew them back then, later came for of one of them to represent the memory of that beginning.