Yellow Mama Archives II

John Short

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A QUALITY GUY

             

 John Short

 

 

On New Year’s Eve they let off fireworks under the Acropolis just as church bells tolled for midnight. I was on the top terrace of the Phaedra Hotel opposite, with Spiros and the others drinking some strong old wine we’d been offered at a shop down the road. The owner must have found a few mouldy boxes in his cellar and was selling cheap to anyone who’d take them away. In the middle of explosions of colour and sound Spiros turned to me and said: “You really must get rid of that mad bitch Johnny; she’s just using you.” I smiled and thought how many times I’d tried to and how she always came back, then when the display was over, we grabbed our instruments and bundled downstairs into the freezing, gunpowder night. I had my fleece-lined jacket on, zipped up to the neck and we began to play. The narrow streets seemed almost too small to contain the euphoria that swelled along them and soon, as if by magic, there was Maria in front of me asking for money. She nipped into a shop for crisps and a can of Fanta then disappeared through the crowds. She’s mental, I thought. But anyway, I looked down and saw that my case was now filling fast with notes and coins.

                                                        *

The street musicians’ network tended to look after its own. I hung out with the Syrian in Piraeus for about four months in his basement flat at the foot of an enormous hill near the sea. In contrast to Athens, my new neighbourhood was pleasantly quiet. It reminded me a little of the 18th district of Paris with its sloping streets and jumbles of steps climbing in all directions. The Syrian had a name that no one could pronounce. On his bedroom wall was a curious map of the Middle East with the Kurdish state outlined – an ancient country at variance with more recent political configurations. He’d come to Greece against the wishes of his family, in pursuit of a girl who, once returned to home soil, quickly dumped him. Now disowned on all sides and receiving not a cent from back there, he drifted tall, dark and saturnine through the fractured limbo of Piraeus, earning survival money by busking. He was a genuine student of the classical guitar though, and spent all day at his practice, which seemed to annoy everyone else in the building.

My room contained some abandoned hi-fi equipment, a number of paint tins and a writing desk but it lacked a bed. I slept on a broken sofa with a blanket draped over me. The small window bore words scrawled in indelible felt tip: You born and swim in trabbles, it declared: a parting message from the previous occupant. But I was determined not to be miserable at the dawn of this new century. Spring was slowly edging into summer and the patio flags were strewn with large lemon-green leaves from some exotic tree that seemed to shed its leaves regardless of seasons.

One day I climbed the steps leading up from the coastal road which skirted the hill, turning eventually to view a vast expanse of concrete. Far in the distance and just vaguely discernible without binoculars, the Acropolis was a miniscule silhouette. That’s where I used to live, I thought, and now we live here. After a few days I found a job as a waiter in one of the restaurants high up near the main church. In my breaks I’d smoke a cigarette in the park and watch Gypsy women hanging laundry over bushes and branches or just debating round their prams. Returning home, I’d usually pick up a couple of beers from the kiosk opposite then go inside and scribble down thoughts and poem fragments or practise my repertoire on the bouzouki, a battered instrument bought for next to nothing a year ago in a shop that had been about to close down. There was a chance they might let me play in the restaurant, come summer, just a little, if they thought I was any good.

Out of the blue there was a knock on the door and Maria had come to live with us. I searched the cupboards for another blanket and told her she could sleep on the floor. The Syrian didn’t seem to mind but after three weeks he opened a small Perspex cover in the hall and removed something from a socket so she couldn’t take any more extended hot baths. I don’t remember ever having sex there although I suppose we must have done. When I went to work, she’d often accompany me up the hill as far as the park and pass the time drinking fizzy orange juice at the upper kiosk and chatting to the bored owner.

                                             *

One afternoon I woke up with a nasty hangover. I’d spent the previous night with my old friends in Athens; on the writing desk stood an empty Ouzo bottle, loose change and some worry beads. Maria looked up at me intently from under dark curls. Stretched out on the blanket, she’d folded my fleece-lined windjammer into the shape of a pillow. I had no idea where the beads had come from or why Maria was scrutinising me.

          “Five in the morning,” she said. “I was worried.”

          “No need to be,” I said.

“Why did you have to go off drinking with that bunch of idiots? You’re much better than them – listen, you’re a quality guy. You even write poetry. I love you … I love this jacket as well because it belongs to you. Forget them and start occupying with me.”

Maria surprised me often but I’d never heard her say such things. I smiled weakly, shuffled off to the bathroom, then said I was going out for a breath of air. At the corner store I bought a plastic bottle of mineral water, gulped at it, then took off in an odd direction. The jaded evening sun hung low over the sea as if not sure where to go. A restless impulse carried me inland for hours. I crossed bridges, streams, parks and squares until eventually it began to grow dusk. Sitting down in a small park completely lost I spotted a wine shop across the road, went inside and had my bottle filled from one of several old pine barrels before returning to the same bench. Some kids nearby were playing ball, kicking up grit and shouting and swearing noisily. I contemplated the bottle then sipped. The cheap Retsina looked the colour of urine and had an acid edge. I lit a cigarette then took another sip as the stars came out and the warm glow of Maria’s words began to expand in my stomach.

 

 

John Short lives in Liverpool, England and is active on the local poetry scene. His poems and stories are now widely published. A previous contributor to Yellow Mama, he’s appeared most recently in Hobo Camp Review, Abergavenny Small Press, Chester Poets Anthology 2021 and StepAway Magazine. He’s published four books – one of stories and three of poetry, the latest being Those Ghosts (Beaten Track 2021).

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