The grey eyed Cinderella – Chapter 2
Posted by: Maria Atalanti
Published on: 04/05/2023Back to Blog
The next day, after having a quick breakfast they started for the factory. Katerina’s aunt accompanied them this time, but she told them to be careful to learn the route because she would not come with them again. They took the bus from the stop near aunt’s house. Kalliroe was impressed by the red double-decker buses of London. They were nothing like her village bus. She wanted to go upstairs to see better but aunt would not let her.
-Upstairs is for the smokers, she told her. Stay here with us.
Kalliroe obeyed but she would do it the next time, that aunt was not with them. The ride took about twenty minutes. When they got off, aunt told them to make a mark so they would know where to get off next time. Kalliroe, even though all the buildings seemed the same to her, was trying to spot some differences, like signs or shops to determine where they were.
When they arrived at the factory, in the Camden Town area, it was obvious that aunt knew the owners, who were aware that they were coming. They were immediately led into a large hall where about fifty women were sitting in front of a sewing machine, one behind the other in five rows, bending over and sewing.
-I was told that you know sewing, the owner, Mr. Costas, told them.
-Yes, answered Kalliroe. We have worked for the best tailor in Limassol, Mrs. Penelope, if you have heard of her.
-I don’t know her, and I don’t care either,” Mr. Costas replied coldly. Here we work differently from Cyprus. Our clothes are industrialized. There are no rehearsals or anything. We will simply give you the fabric cut, along with a sample, a sample of how the finished dress should look. You will see the sample and sew the clothes in the same way. It is very easy. Mrs. Eleni here, will show you. I will pay you eighteen GBP a week for 40 hours of work. If you need to work more, I will pay you overtime.
-But aunt said twenty pounds, Kalliroe dare to say.
Mr. Kostas glared at her for a moment, but then laughed.
-Well, twenty pounds since aunt said so. But if you’re not quick, we’ll be back at eighteen. There are no excuses here. Anyone who doesn’t do us, leaves.
Thus began the work at the factory. Kalliroe did not find it difficult, but very boring. The workers competed to see who could finish the most dresses in the least amount of time. None were particularly interested in quality and perfection. Neither does the owner of course. If the result was satisfactory, only production mattered.
Kalliroe noticed that the workers, “the machines”, as they were called in the anglicized Greek they used, were almost all Cypriots. Trapped in this closed environment, among other Cypriots, they made no effort to learn the English language. They used a mixture of Cypriot dialect with heavily corrupted English words, which at first make it very difficult to understand what they were saying. They only knew enough English to buy a bus ticket or buy food from the neighborhood grocery store. A few words, that is.
The first promise Kalliroe made to herself was to learn English properly. She did not like being treated by the locals as a foreign member of their empire, of a lesser class. Besides, her natural appearance with blonde hair and grey eyes, did not distinguish her from the English natives. From the very first week she enrolled in a night class for foreigners and began lessons. Katerina was not at all interested in following her.
From the other women in the factory, she learned that many worked from home, that is, they took the cut fabrics and samples and sewed whenever they could and as much as they could. In this way they earned more, because they avoided some taxes and deductions that were mandatory in the factory. At the same time, they took care of the house and their children. She thought about it at first but decided she was not interested in working in that way. She first must have her own sewing machine, which even if she bought it second-hand, would be worth a lot for her meager finances. The money her grandmother had given her she was determined to keep it, for now.
Then there was something else. She did not like this way of sewing. What always interested her in this trade, was layering the fabric on the client’s body, creating cuts, frames and pleats that would hide any imperfections, so that it would fit in the best way on the woman who would wear it. That was the challenge for her, not how many dresses to finish in the least amount of time! Talking to a girl at the factory one day, she learned that there were other types of factories that worked in a different way. These were mostly owned by English owners, and they made clothes for the aristocrats and the rich. In fact, she told her, they pay the workers much more. But to be taken there you need to speak English and sew impeccably.
Kalliroe therefore set this goal: To quickly learn the language and find out which these factories are. She certainly would not be staying in that dark factory of Mr. Costas’ in Camden Town. She knew that she was the best of them all in the quality of the result, and she had also increased her speed somewhat, but that was not enough. She was not paid any more for quality, rather she was made to sew the more difficult models, which took longer to complete, so she got less pay.
She talked a little with Katerina about it, but she was not interested. It was clear that she expected her aunt to find her a groom, which was not at all difficult, with so many Cypriot immigrants in London, and to follow the path her aunt had followed. She had no dreams about her professional future.
The truth was that she was getting very tired herself. In the morning at the factory, then in the evening classes to learn the English language. Most of the time when she came home tired and especially on the days she did not go to the night school, she cooked for everyone because Katerina’s aunt’s cooking was horrible, and everyone preferred the food Kalliroe cooked. And herself, of course. But in this way she did not rest at all.
Kalliroe was thinking intensely about something else. She wanted to get out of where she was staying. She generally did not like this family and their habits at all. But the worst thing was Katerina’s almost always drunk uncle and the lustful glances he gave her. She remembered her mother’s words about men. But even if her mother had not spoken to her, this man disgusted her.
But how to leave? It was not easy. Her finances were meager and her connections in London non-existent. As much as she tried to act bravely and determined, deep down she was scared. Such a large city, with such crowds, unknown habits, and unknown dangers. If she left Katerina’s aunt’s house, she would necessarily have to stay in another house, with another Cypriot family, which would not guarantee her any freedom. To rent her own apartment, impossible. The money she had left was very little.
Every Sunday they went, along with Katerina’s aunt’s family, to the Orthodox Cathedral, “Ayion Panton” (All saints), in Camden Town. Most of the local Cypriots frequented there and the girls could socialize a bit. To Kalliroe’s great joy, one Sunday she met Elpida there, the friend she made on the ship when they arrived in London. The excitement of both was indescribable. They decided after the church service to stay a while in the area, walk and talk. They would return by bus.
Katerina’s aunt did not like this, but neither did Elpida’s relatives. As conservative Cypriots, they did not approve of the girls’ independence, but the two friends were adamant. Katerina’s aunt forbade her to stay with them, but she could not do much with Kalliroe. The way she looked at her with her cold, grey eyes, and the dynamism they hid, she was somewhat afraid of her. Elpida’s relatives relented after her insistence, but it was clear that they disagreed with this type of independent behavior.
That day was for Kalliroe, the happiest day since she had arrived in London. They walked in the nearby park, ate something in a cafe, but mostly talked. And when they spoke there was such an identity of opinion, that they continually exclaimed:
But they both recognized that it would not be easy to leave the place they stayed. Besides the financial problem, it was the unfamiliar environment. Where should they go? What dangers will they encounter? And if they don’t make it? Either way, they were both raised in an environment that dictated that women had to be cared for by a man to be safe. It took courage to overcome this belief. Of course, Kalliroe and her mother were always alone, and this gave her more determination. Elpida, on the other hand, faced the additional problem of staying with relatives and it would be even more difficult to justify her escape.
But despite the difficulties, they decided: They would leave and rent a place to live together. The two of them would make it. Strength in unity!
From that day they began to have frequent communication trying to coordinate, to organize their lives in such a way that when they were left alone they would have the means to survive.
At first, and with the advice of some other girls, they opened a bank account and put in whatever they had left over every week. Kalliroe also deposited the money her grandmother had given her. So, she did not have to carry them with her every day and risked losing them. She did not even think of leaving them in the house she was staying. There was the greater risk of them disappearing.
During that time Kalliroe also overheard a conversation between Katerina and her aunt which strengthened her decision to leave as soon as possible. The aunt promised Katerina that she would soon find a groom for her, and it would be better if she did not spend too much time with Kalliroe because she could lure her to bad ways.
-She is not the kind who cares for a family, she concluded. Don’t see you her wanting to go around on her own? And what does she want the English lessons,? We have been living here for so many years without knowing English. Who knows where she goes and with whom she spends her time!
These words hurt Kalliroe a lot. She knew that once she left this house she would never look back.
So, they sped up their efforts with Elpida to find a place to stay. A girl in the factory told them about a cheap apartment that an uncle of hers had above his restaurant that sold fish and chips, “fishiadiko”, in the anglicized Greek of the English Cypriots. One Sunday after church they went to see it. It had its share of bad things, but the worst part was that it smelled awful, since all the smells from the fried fish ended up in it. It was also dirty and neglected. However, they could pay the rent that the owner demanded. It was furnished with some old furniture, and though it was not at all satisfactory, they could have been accommodated initially.
Making the breakthrough of their lives they decided to take it. Elpida did not want to stay longer with her uncles either, she could not stand the environment. When she told them she was leaving, there was a big fight. They threatened to tell her parents in Cyprus, who would force her to go back. They predicted that she would be destroyed and many other things. But she was determined to give herself a chance. Her determination forced them to accept it. Besides, there was nothing else they could do. Elpida was now an adult. She had turned eighteen.
Things with Kalliroe were no better. Despite hearing Katerina’s aunt vilify her and not want her to hang out with her niece, she did not like it at all when Kalliroe told her she was leaving. She would lose the rent she paid her, which she now took for granted. It had already been five months since the girls had come to London. She spoke to her very badly, called her ungrateful, even called her a prostitute. But Kalliroe remembered her mother’s words:
-Don’t cry, my girl and never show your feelings to others. Don’t give them such joy.
She did not say anything, just gathered her few belongings and put them in the old suitcase. The last act of humiliation on the aunt’s part was her action of searching Kalliroe’s suitcase before she left in case she had stolen something from the house.
Kalliroe put her jumbled clothes back in the suitcase, opened the door and left. Stepping out into the street she felt the cold air on her face. Breathing deeply, filled with relief and with an air of freedom, she quickened her pace to catch the bus.
When she arrived at the apartment, Elpida was already there. Their first action was to make the two beds that were there and lie on top of them with their clothes on. Staring at the ceiling, they began to list the many tasks that would have to be done to make this miserable apartment look like a home. Kalliroe took a piece of paper and began to write them down:
-Cleaning the cupboards, cleaning the kitchen, cleaning the floors, waxing the wooden surfaces, painting the walls, buying heavy curtains (they could of course get them second hand to be cheaper), maybe they will be able to reduce the smells coming from the “fishiadiko” on the ground floor and many more tasks.
At some point they got tired and fell asleep. Even though the apartment was cold and smelled bad, the two enjoyed a blissful sleep full of dreams and hopes for the future. A future that they expected to build with their own two hands and the strength that their friendship gave them and their courage to fight.