Genes

Posted by: Maria Atalanti

Published on: 04/07/2021

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Dedicated to my cousin Sotiroula, who lives in Australia, and through the memories she saved, she gave me the basics to write this story. The plot of the story is fictional.

Nikolas sat under an olive tree and looked at the endless plain of Mesaoria. It was summer and the crops waved golden under the scorching sun. As they were moving, in every breath of the air, they reminded old Nikolas of some other waves, blue and white, splashing on the stones and rocks on the beaches of his youth.

It was the beginning of the 20th century and Nikolas was over his 60. Maybe he was 70, he certainly could not remember his age. But he remembered his life. A life different from the life of the inhabitants of this village, who knew only this plain and had never seen the sea.

He remembered the sea with nostalgia and lust, but he knew that he would never have the strength to walk to see it again. He looked at the plain once again. It looked endless in his gaze. One could barely see some olive trees here and there. He closed his eyes and as he lay on the trunk of the olive tree, he fell asleep. When he woke up, the sun was going to set. The plain was turned gold and Nicholas immersed himself in the memories of his life.

He was not coming from this village of Mesaoria, Marathovounos. He was born in Skala, by the sea. He did not look like the people of the village. He was tall, blond, with blue eyes, the color of the sea. He looked like his father. That father who had never married his mother.

As he remembered his mother, Margaret was her name, but everybody called her Markarou, his heart tightened. She had suffered a lot to raise him up. The society of Cyprus condemned in isolation and contempt a woman with a child, who was not married.

His mother was beautiful. Her complexion was much lighter than the other girls of Cyprus. When she was fifteen, she went to work in the consulate (embassy) of Sweden as a maid. There in Skala and Larnaca there was a lot of consulates. Apart from that of Sweden, they were the consulates of Greece, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Venice, and many other countries.

Skala and Larnaca, which were once two villages, were united in a city with European air. He remembered the celebrations when all the consuls and sub-consuls, dressed in their official uniforms, walked the streets, accompanied by their cavaliers, guards, how impressive they were. The Cypriots crowded the streets to see them pass by. Those peasants, who happened to be in the city that day, thought they were watching a fairy tale, with princes and kings.

One of those impressive foreigners was his father. He had seen him many times walking in the streets, in his uniform, decorated with medals and chevrons and his tall hat with the wings. Deep down, he was proud of him, even though he had never called him a father and he had never treated him as his son. When his mother went to work in the consulate, saw this tall Swede with blue eyes and golden hair and her heart broke. The Swede did not take long to notice her. Her beauty blossomed in his eyes like a smelling rose.

Her mother’s exhortations not to give in to the impressive Swede were unable to rein in her desire and love. When she got pregnant, he made it clear to her that he could not marry her. In Sweden he had a wife and children. Her mother with rage and often violence tried to force her to eliminate the child. Even at the time of the child’s birth, she asked her to kill him, but Markarou refused. She took him in her arms and ran to the consulate.

The Swede wanted to avoid the scandal and consented to give them a room in the consulate to stay in and she could continue working as a maid. That is all he did. He never again had any relationship with his mother. He never spoke to him like a father, never embarrassed him. He grew up in his shadow, like a stranger but his shadow protected them from any intrigue.

His mother, after the great love she thought she had lived, saw not only her dreams leafing through, but were violently trampled on by the cruel society around her and the indifferent father of her child. She did everything she could to give her child a normal life. She lived in contempt for her family and society in general. But the fact that she was staying at the consulate gave her some protection from worse manifestations of hatred.

It seems that his father gave her some money for him because he always had shoes and clothes, poor of course, but better than those who had nothing. Many times, his mates tried to make fun of him by calling him a bastard, but his physique and strength frightened and silenced them as soon as he stood in front of them, showing his body.

When he was a child, he played with the other children at sea. They swam naked and fished with reeds from the rocks near the castle. He loved the sea. They could see the ships in the port and the foreigners coming and going, unloading goods, and loading wheat, salt, cotton, wool, barley, wines, even silk for the countries of Europe and the Middle East. Whenever they saw a Greek ship, they used to stand and watch proudly the Greek flag.

Sometimes they used to stroll in the harbor area, walking in the muddy streets between shops selling cotton and silk fabrics, iron utensils and many other products you could not find elsewhere. One could also buy Greek books. Over the streets were vines that offered shade and coolness in the summer and in the gardens of the houses bloomed jasmines and roses. It was a beautiful city the one, he was born and raised!

There was another family staying in the consulate of Sweden. It was the cook Helen with her husband Christos, who was the gardener. He took care of the gardens with great success. Their consulate had the most beautiful garden. They had a son named Dimitri. Dimitri was a smart kid, and he knew how to read and write. He was older than Nikola, but they were friends. It was this Dimitri who taught him to read and write. They used to sit in the garden, and through a Greek book Dimitris started teaching him. He also taught him addition and subtraction. I wonder if Dimitri is still alive or dead, Nicolas thought.

Then he remembered, at the time he was about five years old, his father’s wife came from Sweden. She was tall, blonde, wore nice coloured dresses, and she had her hair in a bun. She also had two children with her, a girl, and a boy, older than him. They were his brother and sister. They were very beautiful and dressed in lovely clothes. He was forbidden to approach them, so he watched them hidden, from afar.

His father’s wife did not like Larnaca. It was hot, there were many mosquitoes, and a lot of people were getting sick with malaria. In the summer, his father took his family and went to the mountains. They spent a few months there in the countryside. When they came back, the Swede lady took her kids and left. They never came back.

That is how Nicholas grew up. In a rich house, but himself poor, next to his father, but non-existent as a ghost to him and with a mother who adored him. He was her only treasure, and every breath was for her son. He had never met any relatives because his mother’s family did not want to have anything to do with them. She was a shame for them, and he was a bastard.

That was until he became 12 years old. Then his father left Cyprus. Before he left, he called him for the first time and gave him two gold pounds. He did not spend those two pounds for many years. He kept them as the only thing he had from his father, until there was a great need.

The Swedish consul, who came afterwards, was an old and fussy man and did not want the mother and child in the house. In summary procedures, he kicked them out. It was the first time they would stay away from the asylum provided by the consulate. They immediately felt in their skin the cruelty of the society.

They had a hard time finding a room to rent. Furthermore, they were all kicked out like they had leprosy. In the end Mr. Christos, the gardener, helped them, and they rented a room in the harbour, next to the customs office, which was owned by one of his relatives. His mother worked laundry in rich houses and himself helped, any time he could find a job, even for a few pennies. Slowly – slowly, the neighbours softened and accepted them. They did not cause any trouble, and they did not hurt anyone.

One day a neighbour, Mr. Lefteris told him: “Would you come and help me in the shop, and I’ll teach you my craft. At the beginning I am not going to pay you, I’ll just feed you. If you’re good and fast in six months or a year’s time, I’ll start paying you”.

Mr. Lefteris was a dyer – he used to dye “vrakes” (a traditional type of very loose trousers, which were always black). He was a craftsman in a nutshell, and the craftsmen were well paid and always had a sure job. Nicholas did not hesitate. He accepted the offer. He did his best, and in six months, Mr. Lefteris started paying him. A few pennies a month, of course, at first, but slowly – slowly the payment was increased.

Their lives began to take a rhythm and they felt belonging to the society, too. Markarou was proud of her son because he was of good character, but also because he was a brave and handsome. On the other hand, she was melting day by day. The hard work, her bitter life, but also malaria that lurked in every bite of the infected mosquitoes, made her look old even though she had not yet reached her 35 years.

Nicholas was worried, seeing his mother becoming paler and paler every day. He took her to the doctor. Malaria was the diagnosis. He suggested to the doctor to take her to the mountains, to change environment, but the doctor stopped him. There’s no time, he told him. Stay close to her. The end is not far away.

At his mother’s funeral, Nicholas wept with sobs. The few attendees, Mr. Christos, Mrs. Eleni, Mr. Lefteris with his wife and some neighbours were crying too. They were considering the bitter life of the woman and identified it with their own sufferings and frustrations. At times like this, pain has no borders. No one knows where the strange pain ends and where one’s own starts. They are all united.

Suddenly, a voice awakened Nicholas from his daydreaming.

—Hey, mouctar (president of the village), it’s getting dark, what are you doing here? Your wife will be waiting for you! Let’s go to the village together.

There was a shepherd coming back from the plain to go home. The bleating and bells of the sheep brought Nikolas to reality. He got up with the help of his stick and followed the shepherd.

The plain was now his life. The sea, the ships and the consulate slipped into the depths of his mind and got silent. He felt the cool air of the sunset beating him in the face and smelled the herd next to him.

—The plain is now my life! Repeated in his mind and opened his step.

 

To be continued…

 

 

The data on the city of Larnaca at that time were obtained from the Great Cyprus Encyclopedia, Volume 8, page 267.

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