Authors: John Fowles
Tags: #Fiction, #Classics, #General
The first thing I did when I arrived at the Grande Bretagne in Athens was to telephone the airport. I was put through to the right desk. A man answered.
He didn’t know the name. I spelt it. Then he wanted to know mine. He said, ‘Please wait a minute.’
He seemed to have meant it literally; but finally I heard a female voice, a Greek-American accent. It sounded like the girl who had been on duty when I met Alison there.
‘Who is that speaking, please?’
‘Just a friend of hers.’
‘You live here?’
A moment’s silence. I knew then. For hours I had nursed the feverish tiny hope. I stared down at the tired green carpet.
‘Didn’t you know?’
My voice must have sounded strangely unsurprised.
‘A month ago. In London. I thought everyone knew. She took an overd –’
I put the receiver down. I lay back on the bed and stared at the ceiling. It was a long time before I found the will to go down and start drinking.
The next morning I went to the British Council. I told the man who looked after me that I had resigned for ‘personal reasons’, but I managed to suggest, without breaking my half-promise to Mavromichalis, that the Council had no business sending people to such isolated posts. He jumped quickly towards the wrong conclusions.
I said, ‘I didn’t chase the boys. That’s not it.’
‘My dear fellow, heaven forbid, I didn’t mean that.’ He offered me a cigarette in dismay.
We talked vaguely about isolation, and the Aegean, and the absolute hell of having to teach the Embassy that the Council was not just another Chancellery annexe. I asked him casually at the end if he had heard of someone called Conchis. He hadn’t.
‘Who is he?’
‘Oh just a man I met on the island. Seemed to have it in for the English.’
‘It’s becoming the new national hobby. Playing us off against the Yanks.’ He closed the file smartly. ‘Well, thanks awfully, Urfe. Most useful chat. Only sorry it’s turned out like this. But don’t worry. We’ll bear everything you’ve said very much in mind.’
On the way to the door he must have felt even sorrier for me, because he invited me to dinner that evening.
But I was no sooner crossing the Kolonaki square outside the Council than I wondered why I had said yes. The stiflingly English atmosphere of the place had never seemed more alien; and yet to my horror I had detected myself trying to fit in acceptably, to conform, to get their approval. What had they said in the trial?
He seeks situations in which he knows he will be forced to rebel.
I refused to be the victim of a repetition compulsion; but if I refused that, I had to find courage to refuse all my social past, all my background. I had not only to be ready to empty dustbins rather than teach, but to empty them rather than ever have to live and work with the middle-class English again.
The people in the Council were the total foreigners; and the anonymous Greeks around me in the streets the familiar compatriots.
I had, when I checked in at the Grande Bretagne, asked whether there had been two English twins, fair-haired, early twenties … recently staying at the hotel. But the reception clerk was sure there had not; I hadn’t expected there to be, and I didn’t insist.
When I left the British Council, I went to the Ministry of the Interior. On the pretext that I was writing a travel-book I got to the department where the war crimes records were filed; and within fifteen minutes I had in my hands a copy in English of the report the real Anton had written. I sat down and read it; it was all, in every but very minor detail, as Conchis had said.
I asked the official who had helped me if Conchis was still alive. He flicked through the file from which he had taken the report. There was nothing there except the address on Phraxos. He did not know. He had never heard of Conchis, he was new in this department.
I made a third call then, this time on the French embassy. The girl who dealt with me managed finally to lure the cultural attaché down from his office. I explained who I was, that I was very anxious to read this distinguished French psychologist on art as institutionalized illusion … the idea of that seemed to amuse him, but I was in trouble as soon as I mentioned the Sorbonne. He peremptorily regretted that there must be some mistake: there was no medical faculty at the Sorbonne. However, he led me to a shelf of reference books in the embassy library. A number of things were very soon established. Conchis had never been in any capacity at the Sorbonne (or at any other French university, for that matter), he was not registered as a doctor in France, he had never published anything in French. There was a Professor Maurice Henri de Conches-Vironvay of Toulouse, who had written a series of learned treatises on the diseases of the vine, but I refused to take him as a substitute. In the end I escaped feeling that I had at least done my bit for Anglo—French understanding – not in any way impaired the happy Gallic belief that most English are both ignorant and mad.
I went back in the sweltering midday heat to the hotel. The reception clerk turned to give me my key; and with it came a letter. It had my name only, and was marked
I tore upon the envelope. Inside was a sheet of paper with a number and a name.
‘Who brought this?’
‘A boy. A messenger.’
He opened his hands. He did not know.
I knew where Syngrou was: a wide boulevard that ran from Athens down to the Piraeus. I went straight out and jumped into a taxi. We swung past the three columns of the temple of Olympic Zeus and down towards the Piraeus, and in a minute the taxi drew up outside a house standing back in a fair-sized garden. The chipped enamel figures announced that it was number 184.
The garden was thoroughly disreputable, the windows boarded up. A lottery-ticket seller sitting on a chair under a pepper tree near by asked what I wanted, but I took no notice of him. I walked to the front door, then round the back. The house was a shell. There had been a fire, evidently some years before, and the flat roof had fallen in. I looked into a garden at the rear. It was as dry and unkempt and deserted as the front. The back door gaped open. There were signs, among the fallen rafters and charred walls, that tramps or Vlach gypsies had lived there; the trace of a more recent fire on an old hearth. I waited for a minute, but I somehow sensed that there was nothing to find. It was a false trail.
I returned to the waiting yellow taxi. The dust from the dry earth rose in little swirls in the day-breeze and powdered the already drab leaves of the thin oleanders. Traffic ran up and down Syngrou, the leaves of a palm tree by the gate rustled. The ticket-seller was talking to my driver. He turned as I came out.
?’ Looking for someone?
‘Whose house is that?’
He was an unshaven man in a worn grey suit, a dirty white shirt without a tie; his rosary of amber patience-beads in his hands. He raised them, disclaiming knowledge.
‘Now. I do not know. Nobody’s.’
I looked at him from behind my dark glasses. Then said one word.
Immediately his face cleared, as if he understood all. ‘Ah. I understand. You are looking for
He flung open his hands. ‘He is dead.’
‘Four, five years.’ He held up four fingers; then cut his throat and said
I looked past him to where his long stick of tickets, propped up against the chair, flapped in the wind.
I smiled acidly at him, speaking in English. ‘Where do you come from? The National Theatre?’ But he shook his head, as if he didn’t understand.
‘A very rich man.’ He looked down at the driver, as if he would understand, even if I didn’t. ‘He is buried in St George’s. A fine cemetery.’ And there was something so perfect in his typical Greek idler’s smile, in the way he extended such unnecessary information, that I began almost to believe that he was what he seemed.
‘Is that all?’ I asked.
Go and see his grave. A beautiful grave.’
I got into the taxi. He rushed for his stick of tickets, and brandished them through the window.
‘You will be lucky. The English are always lucky.’ He picked one off, held it to me. And suddenly he knew English. ‘Eh. Just one little ticket.’
I spoke sharply to the driver. He did a U-turn, but after fifty yards I stopped him outside a cafe. I beckoned to a waiter.
The house back there, did he know who it belonged to?
Yes. To a widow called Ralli, who lived in Corfu.
I looked through the rear window. The ticket-seller was walking quickly, much too quickly, in the opposite direction; and as I watched, he turned down a side-alley out of sight.
At four o’clock that afternoon, when it was cooler, I caught a bus out to the cemetery. It lay some miles outside Athens, on a wooded slope of Mount Aegaleos. When I asked the old man at the gate I half expected a blank look. But he went painfully inside his lodge, fingered through a large register, and told me I must go up the main alley; then fifth left. I walked past lines of toy Ionic temples and columned busts and fancy steles, a forest of Hellenic bad taste; but pleasantly green and shady.
Fifth left. And there, between two cypresses, shaded by a mournful aspidistra-like plant, lay a simple Pentelic marble slab with, underneath a cross, the words:
Four years dead.
At the foot of the slab was a small green pot in which sat, rising from a cushion of inconspicuous white flowers, a white arum lily and a red rose. I knelt and took them out. The stems were recently cut, probably from only that morning; the water was clear and fresh. I understood; it was his way of telling me what I had already guessed, that detective work would lead me nowhere – to a false grave, to yet another joke, a smile fading into thin air.
I replaced the flowers. One of the humbler background sprigs fell and I picked it up and smelt it; a sweet, honey fragrance. Since there was a rose and a lily, perhaps it had some significance. I put it in my buttonhole, and forgot about it.
At the gate I asked the old man if he knew of any relatives of the deceased Maurice Conchis. He looked in his book again for me, but there was nothing. Did he know who had brought the flowers? No, many people brought flowers. The breeze raised the wispy hairs over his wrinkled forehead. He was an old, tired man.
The sky was very blue. A plane droned down to the airport on the other side of the Attic plain. Other visitors came, and the old man limped away.
The dinner that evening was dreadful, the epitome of English vacuity. Before I went, I had some idea that I might tell them a little about Bourani; I saw a spellbound dinner-table. But the idea did not survive the first five minutes of conversation. There were eight of us, five from the Council, an Embassy secretary, and a little middle-aged queer, a critic, who had come to do some lectures. There was a good deal of literary chit-chat. The queer waited like a small vulture for names to be produced.
‘Has anyone read Henry Green’s latest?’ asked the Embassy man.
‘Couldn’t stand it.’
‘Oh I rather enjoyed it.’
The queer touched his bow-tie. ‘Of course you know what dear Henry said when he … ‘
I looked round the other faces, after he had done this for the tenth time, hoping to see a flicker of fellow-feeling, someone else who wanted to shout at him that writing was about books, not the trivia of private lives. But they were all the same, each mind set in the same weird armour, like an archosaur’s ruff, like a fringe of icicles. All I heard the whole evening was the tinkle of broken ice-needles as people tried timidly and vainly to reach through the stale fence of words, tinkle, tinkle, and then withdrew.
Nobody said what they really wanted, what they really thought. Nobody behaved with breadth, with warmth, with naturalness; and finally it became pathetic. I could see that my host and his wife had a genuine love of Greece, but it lay choked in their throats. The critic made a perceptive little disquisition on Leavis, and then ruined it by a cheap squirt of malice. We were all the same; I said hardly anything, but that made me no more innocent – or less conditioned. The solemn figures of the Old Country, the Queen, the Public School, Oxbridge, the Right Accent, People Like Us, stood around the table like secret police, ready to crush down in an instant on any attempt at an intelligent European humanity.
It was symptomatic that the ubiquitous person of speech was ‘one’ – it was one’s view, one’s friends, one’s servants, one’s favourite writer, one’s travelling in Greece, until the terrible faceless Avenging God of the Bourgeois British, One, was standing like a soot-blackened obelisk over the whole evening.
I walked back to the hotel with the critic, thinking, in a kind of agonized panic, of the light-filled solitudes of Phraxos; of the losses I had suffered.
‘Dreadful bores, these Council people,’ he said. ‘But one has to live.’ He didn’t come in. He said he would stroll up to the Acropolis. But he strolled towards Zappeion, a park where the more desperate of the starving village boys who flock to Athens sell their thin bodies for the price of a meal.
I went to Zonar’s in Panepistemiou and sat at the bar and had a large brandy. I felt upset, profoundly unable to face the return to England. I was in exile, and for ever, whether I lived there or not. The fact of exile I could stand; but the loneliness of exile was intolerable.
It was about half past twelve when I got back to my room. There was the usual hot airlessness of nocturnal Athens in summer. I had just stripped off my clothes and turned on the shower when the telephone rang by the bed. I went naked to it. I had a grim idea that it would be the critic, unsuccessful at Zappeion and now looking for a target for his endless Christian names.
‘Meester Ouf It was the night porter. ‘There is telephone for you.’