Smyrna 1911 Alan and Eleni (part 1)
Posted: 16 November 2018
Word Count: 3367
Summary: This is a second story about people in the city. As yet, this, and the other four stories are unconnected. I would welcome comments that highlight a passage and say, "This is all waffle." or "Boring!!!" or "You are being self-indulgent. We don't need to know this." and, surprise, surprise, "Excellent, George, this is good stuff."
As he was finishing dinner, a waiter came to the table and said,
"A note for you Mr Jones."
"For me. Are you sure?
"It was left at reception a few minutes ago." As the waiter retreated, Alan opened the envelope. He read, 'I have something that may be of interest you. It is a unique and unrecorded piece from Ephesus. If you are interested, meet me at the Cafe Salonique in Platea Aristotelou in the Greek Quarter at 10 o'clock this evening. I will find you.' He certainly was interested. As an accredited archaeologist, digging permits were not difficult to obtain, but an observer from the Ottoman Archaeological Bureau had to be present at all times to record and catalogue the finds before they were sent to Constantinopoli. You were allowed to photograph your finds and to let it be known that it was your discovery but they were not for keeping and never for sending out of the country. If you wanted to export anything, permission had to be granted from, not only the OAB but also the Department for the Interior and the national police. In reality, the only way to take antiquities out of the country was by bribery or personally knowing the Sultan.
He arrived at the Cafe Salonique early and took a seat at the back of the room. Alan sipped his cognac and dissected the scene. Outside, under a blue awning with gold lettering, the clientele gossiped loudly as if it were considered rude to exclude the people at the next table. Inside and out, a corps of waiters danced around the tables dispensing wine and beer and hundreds of small dishes of meze. A man appeared in the street. A short man wearing a shabby suit. He was agitated. He entered the cafe and began to make his way to the rear. Alan did not like the look of this fellow. He looked too needy. He looked as if he had not held paper money for a long time. He approached Alan but suddenly, from behind, the head waiter called, "Get changed quickly and report to the kitchen." This was not Alan's man. He was a dish-washer or the like, certainly not a dealer in antiquities. He glanced at his pocket watch. His man was late. Was he being set up? Could it be some sort of a trap? For heaven's sake. If it were, he would claim that he was there only to find out more about this blatant crime. He was a professional archaeologist. He was doing his civic duty, helping the police. 'One more minute,’ he thought, 'If he's not here in one minute, I'm leaving.' Sixty seconds later he placed two hands on the table and was about to hoist himself to his feet when into the chair beside him slid the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on. He was stunned. Where had she come from? He would have noticed this woman. A halo of black curls and a pair of long, antique silver earrings framed a face which captured every aspect of womankind. She was lover, mother, wife and daughter. Had she said her name was Helen and had just arrived from Troy, he would have thought it entirely plausible.
"Mr Jones?" Her eyebrows lifted and her eyes widened. "Did I startle you, I'm sorry," she said. "Her voice possessed a cadence that dropped away at the end of sentences. "My name is Eleni." All he could think about was that face, that body, that voice. What he wanted, was to feel her hair, kiss those lips, and touch her skin; his mind was tumbling. For half an hour he hardly stopped talking. He couldn't seem to stop. He told her about his life in Chicago and his early celebrity excavating Native American sites around the Great Lakes. He told her how the museum had asked him to lead an expedition to the new digs being opened up in Egypt and the Middle East. The new Director of the Museum wanted to make his mark and had chosen Alan to head an excavation to find something that would put the Chicago Museum on the map: money was no object. He told her everything about himself leaving out a few details and amplifying many others. He forced himself to stop talking.
"Anyway, Eleni." it was the first time he had spoken her name. It felt like honey. "Enough about me. Do you have something for me?"
"Yes, I do" She cleared her throat and seemed sorry he had finished telling his stories. "It is not for me, you understand. I have a friend, a poor girl from Limnii, near Kusadasi. She found something in the fields and asked me to help her sell it, if it is worth anything. I know little of such things." She pushed a small box across the table. "Please tell me what you think." Inside the box was the marble head of a boy. It was exquisite. Though it was only the size of a cabbabe the detail of his features and his hair were of the finest quality. He knew instantly that this was pre-Christian, probably from the Classical period, around 500bc. The marble was blackened on one side and bore traces of soil on the other.
"Is this all there is? Do you have the torso?"
"This is all she gave me?"
Usually, in situations like this, Alan would disparage the object, saying it was 'not unusual, there were many such pieces to be found; had the body been there it would be more desirable; as it was, he could only offer..’, and such like. With this woman, though, he wanted to impress, show her he was a man of substance.
"This is magnificent." he said, "Wonderful. It comes from the statue of a young boy. It would probably have decorated a public building; a library or a school. A temple, maybe."
"Is it worth anything?" she asked.
"Why, yes, of course it is. Back home, a museum would pay about $500 for this. Even more if you could find a private buyer in Paris or London. If it were complete, if the body were available, it would be worth considerably more, $20,000, $30,000. who knows"
"$500?” She looked surprised. “That is wonderful. But my friend would not know how to do these things. Could you help her?"
"Well, she should report it to the police under the Statute of Antiquities."
"My friend is a poor Greek woman and these officials would take advantage of her." She drew closer to him and looked into his eyes. Her perfume was sublime. "She wants to gather some money so that she can send her children to gymnasio. Is there anything you can do for her?" This face, this voice and this perfume took control of his senses. "I cry for my friend." Her hands moved forward a little and her eyes seemed to moisten.
"Don't worry, Eleni. Leave it to me. I'll work something out." And without knowing how, he was holding her hands.
" You are a wonderful man. I knew you would help." She squeezed his hand and looked into his eyes. "How can I ever thank you?"
Sunlight was sieved through the muslin curtains of the tall lobby windows at the Grand Hotel Huck and the air was stirred by a series of ceiling fans. The marble and the mahogany had the place to themselves this afternoon. Except, that is, for Alan Jones.
He was early but the anticipation of seeing Eleni again was food and drink to him. He ordered a cognac, what he had been drinking one their first meeting. Since then his mind had been in rapture, her face floating across his mind’s eye unbidden. That first meeting had been a whirlwind but tonight, he was clear. He wanted this woman. But what if she were married? What if she were affianced? What if she did not care for him? He could not countenance such thoughts.
“Hello, Mr Jones." That voice. “Nice to see you again.” She was wearing a blue silk blouse and a white skirt that ended mid-calf. Around her neck she wore a thin gold chain from which hung a golden teardrop. Her bust, though not prominent, held the promise of abundance.
"Hello," he said. “Please call me Alan.”
“Very well: Alan.” she said, “You know, we were so busy with our talking last time, I forgot to ask you what you thought of our city.”
“I think it’s wonderful. So many interesting people. Swimming at Platea Yalo.” He was thinking. “I’ve been invited to talk to the students at the American University. And I really want to go to up Mt Pagus. They say the view from up there is marvellous.”
“It’s true. You can see all the way up the Gulf to the Aegean and sometimes, on a clear winter day, as far as Lesvos. It is beautiful. If you permit me, we can go together?” ‘Permit you?” he thought, ‘I’ll carry you if you `ask’.” A waiter appeared at Alan’s side. He ordered another cognac for himself and Eleni ordered a glass of Mavrodaphne, a sweet red wine from the Peloponnese. When the waiter had gone, she asked him how he had fared with his museum directors. He glanced around the room, it was empty. Outside on the quay, the boats bobbed on the water and all was quiet at this siesta hour. He pulled his chair closer.
“They were thrilled.” he said. “They wanted me to find more but I told them that the head of the boy had been a special opportunity”
"Did they think $500 was too much?" He wanted to say, ‘No, they sent the $1000 I asked for’ but he replied, “Not at all. They know it was worth every cent. They didn’t quibble.” He took a package from the inside of his coat and slid it across the table. She smiled and said, "My friend will be pleased," and pushed the package to one side as if it were no more than a box of kadaifi just picked up from the zacharoplastion. He looked at her for a few seconds.
"I know so very little about you.”
"Well, there's not much to tell.", she said. “My family have been fishermen since the days of St Peter. Originally, we came from Syros, in the Cyclades, but we have been in Smyrna for generations. They say that the first Zacharious, that’s my family name, Zachariou, came here after one of my ancestors killed the agent at the Athens Fish Market when he discovered he had been cheating him.” She turned her head to look at the passing horse-drawn tram car. He looked at her profile and pictured it on the side of an ancient coin. “But that is - histoire.” She turned back to him. “ Smyrna is the only home I have ever known,” she said. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else. It has brought me happiness by the netful, and sorrow on a single hook.” It wasn’t just her voice. It was her eyes too. They invited you to enter her world, explore it. There were no barriers there. Like an artist with a blank canvas. Carpe Deum.
“I love it here, too” he said before he realised he had said anything. “I love the bay and the sky and the air and the hills. I love the people here.” Just in time he stopped himself from saying, ‘And I love you, too.’ He went on, rushing to change the subject “Where do you live? Here in town?”
“Oh, up the hill, behind the hospital. My family bought land there many years ago and over time we have built three houses, all beside each other. My father, he is old now, he lives in the big house. My uncle lives next door and I live opposite with my son, Michalis. He is eight.”
“Oh, you’re married” he said, much too quickly.
“I was. My husband is dead”
“I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry.”
“Yes,” she said, “he drowned. He never got to see our son.” They sat in silence for a moment, she, with her head bowed, he, marvelling at the swing of her earrings. “He drowned in a fishing accident.” She continued. “I’ve gotten over it now. As much as I will ever get over it. At first, I didn’t give myself time to think about it. I threw myself into the business. The boats, the fish, you know.” He nodded,
“You never married again?”
“No. Here in Turkey a widow-woman with a young son is like a three-legged donkey. No good for anything.” She laughed.
“Well, that’s just plain crazy. Back home you’d have them kicking your door down.” He paused. “Because, if you don’t mind me saying so, you are a beautiful woman.”
“Well, thank you, Mr Jones. You are very kind.”
“Alan. Please call me Alan”
“Of course. Sorry. Alan. But what use is beauty for a woman like me, sporia, just sporia. My only dowry is an eight-year son and the memory of an Islamic husband.”
“Your husband was Islamic.? That’s unusual, isn’t it?”
“Not so unusual. Not here in Smyrna. Marriage between the faiths is more common here than in other parts of the country. Here, we are a salad. Christians, Muslins, Jews, we all come from the same root. Different branches, same tree. We have a song about it. “Souzoukakia! O Malakia! Sto Smyrneika!” She sang a couple of lines, then stopped. “Deniz was a wonderful man. From a fishing family like my own. We lived near each other, we went to the same school, we were, how do you say, amoureux d’enfance.” He wanted to change the subject.
“What is suzikak?” he stumbled.
“Souzoukakia smyrneika. It is meatballs, Smyrna style. We mince pork and veal together and mix it with small pieces of bread and oregano and kumina and cinnamon,” she wafted her hand back and forth as if to say ‘you know, the usual spices, “then it is put in the oven and cooked in a tomato salsa.”
“Oh, I nearly forgot. The food here is delicious. And what does sporia mean?”
“It is a Persian word. It’s the dried seed from the melon. We also call them pasa tempo, time passing,” she said. “like a woman’s beauty. You will hear many tongues spoken along this coast, Greek, Turkish, Armenian.” She went on, “Why, there are some camel masters who can speak twelve or fourteen languages. Tongues from all along the Silk Route, Arabic, Persian, Uzbek, Urdu, even Mandarin.”
“Back home, we manage to get by with just one.”
Can you say all you want with just one language? So many people, just one language?”
“We seem to manage pretty well with good old English.” He was teasing her now.
“Here in Smyrna we use different languages for different things.” Alan had to think about this. Yes,” she began, “Greek is the language of laughter - not only laughter.” She thought for a second, “Of dreaming. It is the language of our emotions, of how we feel. Of families. Of drama. Of the Gods. Of life and death, itself.”
“I see.” said Alan.
“French is the language of romance, of love and sex and jealousy and war. Then we have Italian, the language of passion and song and opera, the meeting of music and tuberculosis” she giggled and he laughed with her.
“What about English?”
“Well, now, Alan.” She became mock serious, “ English is the language of money. Whenever we hear English, we hold on to our purses. Like this.” She held both hands below her chin. Did you know that at this moment, in your hotel, there are three of the richest men in the world, Alexander Mantashev, your American, Mr Rockefeller and the English banker, Lord Baring, and what language do you think they all speak – English! Of course, there are Englishmen who can be charming – especially those from Scotland – they can be tres charmants.” Without moving her head, she raised her eyes and he thought he caught a sly smile. “And as for the Germans. Their’s is the language of industry. Is it any surprise that it is the Germans who are building all the railways here in Turkey? Did you know they are making a railway that goes from Baghdad to Berlin, Berlin – panayea mou!” she crossed herself. “Have you not noticed that the sound of trains, the clang of steel banging on steel, hammers, nails – it all sounds like German – hard, sharp, rasping. And, – they’re all called Schmidt!” Alan was laughing now.
“What about the others?” he said.
“Now Arabic. Arabic is a mysterious tongue. It is a language of the planets, of the earth and the sky. Arabic is a veil of poetry. It is a whispered tongue that is most eloquent around a desert fire as the stars slide down a dark sky and disappear below the Western horizon.” She paused. “Also, it’s what camels speak.” She shrieked and her laughter rang around the room. Alan Jones was a man in love. He raised his glass clinked it against hers, and said, “Yamas!, here’s to us.” and downed the last of his cognac. This woman reached parts of him that had lain dormant for donkey’s years.
“And what about Turkish?” he said, after a while.
“Turkish is the language of the abattoir.” she spat out, all the humour gone from her voice. Alan jerked back in his seat as if he had been slapped. He looked at her and she held his gaze for a long moment. H could see that she was thinking ‘I shouldn’t have said that.’, yet the more they gazed at one another the more he sensed that she wanted to say a lot more.
“Why do you say that?” he said. She looked away and suddenly the smile was back.
“Oh, I’m just being silly. I didn’t mean that. Turkish is just Turkish. That’s all I mean.” In the silence that followed, Alan stared at her profile. The long antique earring hung motionless at last and he watched a tear slide down her cheek and fall onto the tablecloth. He reached over and took her hand.
“Please tell me.” he said. “Please.” She turned to him.
“They killed him.” Alan felt a chill go through him. His eyes widened. He sat upright.
“Wh-wh- what do you mean? Who killed who?
“They killed my husband. They killed Deniz. They tied his hands and his feet and they threw him into the sea”
“Who killed him?” Alan said.
“His brothers. His whole family. His brothers murdered him” she said, not sad, just angry. “After Michalis was born, a boy.” she raiseda finger for emphasis, “They thought that their boats would fall to me, and my family.” She was silent. “So, they killed him” she said quietly.” Her thoughts were so heavy she could only dig out one at a time. “They killed him because I was Greek. Because I was beautiful and I was Greek.” It was Alan’s turn to look away. What he was seeing and hearing needed time to comprehend. They sat in silence for a long time.
“How did you know it was them?” he said eventually.
“My father is an important man. He knows many people. He found out it was his brothers who killed him then sunk his boat. Bastards!”
“What about the police? Didn’t they do anything?”
“Bah!” she spat out. “There was no proof, you see. No witnesses. No boat. No body. Here is Smyrna, it is not the promised land that you think it is. Here, money is stronger than justice, take it from me. In Smyrna, people babble about things of which they know nothing and the people who know everything, fasten their lips and look the other way.” She paused. “The old Kommisar was more corrupt than all the others put together. He would sell himself, and all his children, to the fattest wallet, from his hat to his boots.
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