They were supposed to meet in the café at 1pm. Petro arrived a little late and found the terrace empty. He chose a table in the shadow of a lemon tree and ordered his regular homemade vissinada. He looked at the trawlers. He lit a cigarette and rested his eyes on the blue expanse.
They would come. He knew they’d come.
Petro was a well-intentioned man with sad eyes, who, when he was young had worn his hair long so that it fell over his bright eyes. His smile was sweet, his manners were gentle.
The waiter brought his drink and he smiled, recollecting how he met three young Egyptian fishermen, and that day they had invited him to the trawler’s deck where they smoked apple-flavoured nargileh and ate those delicious sukkary dates. He found their company pleasant, and when they complained about their Greek captains and how unfairly they were treated, Petro patted them on the arm and spoke words of comfort. It seemed that he was the only Greek who talked with Egyptians and he knew well that the locals might regard him with a little concern for consorting with immigrants. But he did not mind, for he knew he was not like the others.
Petro was waiting for the three Egyptians. He would take them out for a meal in a traditional taverna. He planned to show them how Greeks enjoy themselves with plenty of food and alcohol. He wanted so much to show these immigrants a good time. He imagined himself talking about the traditional dishes he would order, what the ingredients were, how this and that dish were prepared. And, while daydreaming in this way, he felt a light hand rest on his shoulder.
“Sorry we’re late,” said Ahmed. “We finished work very late this morning. You been waiting long?”
“Please, don’t stand like that,” Petro said. “Please, take a seat.”
His Egyptian friends ordered coffee and lit cigarettes. Magdi began speaking about what everyone in the harbour was talking about these days. A fellow Egyptian, Rasool, had been caught by the police carrying drugs in his car-boot. They tried to figure out why Rasool might have done such a thing and who might have grassed him up. Mohammed said that it must have been someone from the Egyptian community, but Petro said he had his doubts about that, he couldn’t believe that one of them would do such a thing.
Then the sad eyes of Petro saw a lonely Egyptian staring at them from across the harbour, an Egyptian with whom he had spoken a few times before and didn’t like; Sayeed was his name. Many times he had seen Sayeed in the café speaking with undercover police officers. But this was not the main reason he disliked him. Sayeed was annoying because he talked too much and was always restless, so restless that he was always jiggling his knee.
Sayeed crossed the cobbled street and stood before them. They said their hellos, then Sayeed stood there doing nothing, just tapping his heel and chewing his gum, hands in pockets. Petro noticed his three friends withdraw their gaze from their countryman. Sayeed’s eyes settled on Petro’s.
“So what are you up to, guys?” Sayeed said.
His countrymen said nothing. Petro gave Sayeed the once-over. He didn’t like this immigrant, but it wasn’t decent to leave him standing there, uninvited. “We’re thinking of going to a taverna,” he said, and, glancing at his friends, he saw them turn their eyes away. He felt as if his kindness was being tested. He slipped a cigarette out of his pack and stuck it between his lips: “You coming?”
“Yes,” Sayeed replied, chewing his gum.
Petro couldn’t sense any gratitude in Sayeed’s answer, any recognition of his generosity in inviting him. He went for his lighter, wondering if inviting him was the right thing to do.
Sayeed’s words came quickly: “Why are you sitting like that then? Come on. Shall we go?”
Sayeed’s words sounded to Petro more like an order than a suggestion. He saw the others standing up and he stood up too.
Sayeed spoke, “I know a good taverna. A new one. In Old Town, opposite the Imaret. Want to go there?”
Before Petro had understood how plans had changed so quickly, they were all heading up, towards the hill, towards Kavala’s Old Town and the taverna of Al Khalili.
In the taverna’s small garden there was only one free table. Petro, who thought that his guests should have the better view, sat at the head of the table, facing the interior, and the others sat on either side. Next to him, on his left, sat Sayeed.
The waiter covered the dull-white cotton tablecloth with a paper one that, as he unfolded it, made a fresh, crisp sound. He wiped his sweaty brow with his thumb and said that he would be back when they were ready to order.
“Wait a moment,” said Sayeed, and turned to his companions. “Ouzo. Ouzo we gonna have, aren’t we?”
“Let’s take our time to decide,” said Petro. “We’re in no hurry.” He left his cigarette pack on the new tablecloth. On top of his pack he put his lighter. His friends did the same.
A drop of sweat trickled down from the waiter’s temple, rested in the hollow of his sunken cheek. “So you want ouzo or not?” he asked Petro.
“Look,” said Sayeed. “Can you first bring us a jug of water? It’s so hot.”
The waiter left and the only sound at the table was the sharp rolling of flint-wheels and the soft sound of burning paper around the tobacco.
Water jug and five tumblers were brought over, and the waiter turned to leave.
“Hang on,” Sayeed stopped him. “Can we have half a litre of ouzo? Not from the barrel, bring us bottled Plomari.” And looking at the others, he said, “That’s the best one.”
Petro saw his friends nodding with approval.
“Anything else?” asked the waiter, addressing Petro.
“Yes,” Sayeed replied instead. He poured water into everyone’s glass and as he spoke his cigarette dangled in his lips: “Bring us ice. Lots of ice.”
“Anything else?” asked the waiter again, still looking at the only local person at the table.
“No,” said Sayeed. “Bring us the ouzo and then we’ll let you know about food. Plomari, yeah? Not from the barrel.”
“Plomari all right,” said the waiter.
“Oh,” said Sayeed again, and pouring the last drops from the jug into Petro’s glass, he handed the jug back to the waiter. “And one more jug of water.”
When the waiter brought the bits and bobs, Petro took the bottle of ouzo, cracked it open, and poured some into everyone’s glass. Then he went for the ice-bowl. The ice-bowl was made from copper and Petro rested it on his hand, feeling its sweet metallic coolness along the lines of his palm, and asked whether they took ice with their ouzo.
“Of course we take ice. It’s so hot,” said Sayeed.
“I guess it’s much hotter in Egypt though, isn’t it?” said Petro. “Maybe it is, but I live here now.”
Petro dropped ice-cubes in everyone’s ouzo, took the menu, browsed the list. Sayeed asked whether they were ready to order.
No one answered.
“I suggest,” Sayeed said, tossing a glance around his companions, “to have calamari and octopus. These two for sure. Now, what else?”
Petro saw his plans for the meal fall to pieces. He’d wanted to order dishes that the Egyptians had never tried before, but this immigrant wasn’t giving him much chance. He didn’t want to say anything to him though, as he might take it as an insult, and Petro didn’t want that; he didn’t like insulting people. So he looked at the menu and, as none of the Egyptians could read Greek, he began reading out loud the food on the list: “So. Salads: beetroot with garlic, melitzanosalata, Greek sal–”
“We know, we know,” Sayeed interrupted him, and called for the waiter and gave his orders: “All right. Two portions of deep-fried calamari rings, a portion of red-wined octopus…”
This immigrant was doing everything so fast—maybe because he was always so restless, Petro thought. He knew that Sayeed’s order would be the usual stuff, what the other three Egyptians had probably tried before. But he had planned to have a proper Greek meal, a relaxed meal, where he’d tell cooking stories while they ate and drank. But Sayeed was in charge now and no one had challenged him yet.
“...two portions of fried anchovies,” continued Sayeed, “two grilled chili peppers, tzatziki, two portions of fries, a Greek salad, taramosalata, and... and what else? Ah, and grilled sardines. That’s all, thanks.”
The waiter scribbled everything down on his order-pad and stubbed a full stop.
“And a portion of mussels saganaki,” interjected Petro, trying to gain some control over the food order. “And a chili cheese-cream.”
The waiter scribbled that, then lowered his order-pad and stared at Petro.
“And another bottle of ouzo,” said Sayeed. “And more ice.”
The waiter smiled. “Anything else?”
“Nothing else,” Sayeed replied.
One by one, the dishes began to arrive, and the five men began nibbling away. The ouzo went down much better now.
Petro didn’t eat much. This meal was for the immigrants. They should have as much food as they fancied and enjoy themselves. A good time, that’s what he wanted them to have. He was ready to ask them something about their country, maybe something about their families there—that would be a good subject to talk about, he thought—but as he opened his mouth, Sayeed leaned close to him and pointed at an antique wall-clock that was hanging on a pillar inside the taverna.
“Look at that clock and look at the numbers. What kind of numbers are these? Do you know?”
Petro looked at the clock and the numbers on it. They seemed a bit strange, but they must be some sort of fancy Roman numerals. He was preparing to give his answer, when Sayeed said: “The numbers on the clock are Arabic numbers.”
Petro looked at the numbers again and smiled to himself that Sayeed probably hadn’t even finished primary school back in his own country. Then he recalled that just behind his back was the Imaret, the old, beautiful Egyptian building. He knew all about the Imaret— two hundred years ago it was presented to the citizens of Kavala as a gift of love and power by Mehmet Ali, the man that was born in this town when it was still under Ottoman rule, and who went on to become the founder of modern Egypt, and its king. But Petro said nothing about it. Instead, he told his companions that the name of this taverna, the Al Khalili, was taken from the title of a popular Greek song. Ahmed said that Khan Al Khalili was actually a huge open market back in Qahera, as he called Cairo, and Mohammed added that the mussels saganaki that Petro had ordered were a very good choice.
They ordered more bottles of ouzo and Petro felt his ears burning and knew that his cheeks must now be red. This worried him. He looked at the faces of the Egyptians. Their cheeks were their usual colour, but their eyes were full of tiny red veins. He liked that, it made him feel better, less worried. And as he was looking at them he realised that he had not said a word for some time and that his companions were not speaking in their broken Greek any more.
Left alone, Petro didn’t know what to do. He drank and refilled his glass, stole glances at Sayeed’s jiggling heel, drank more, looked at his belly. He had a big belly and was ashamed of it. Bitterness rose in his throat. He looked up: Sayeed was saying something to the others in their language. It seemed like he was telling a story. Too much ouzo without food made Petro’s mouth go dry and numb. He took a long breath. The air made him feel better and he took another long breath. He realised how hungry he was. He glanced at the Greek salad. He wished he was all alone so that he could break off a hunk of crusty bread, dab it in the salad’s juices, and cram it into his hungry, hungry mouth. But he couldn’t behave like that in public, it wasn’t decent. So he scooped some tzatziki and ate it. But the tzatziki had been in the sun for too long and tasted horrible. He knocked back his ouzo to wash down the bad taste. His belly ached. He slipped his hand under the table, unhooked his belt and popped open the top button. He sat back, sighed, smoothed his few hairs back, and remembered a time he had long hair and was young and strong and had dreams and wanted to meet lots of women and be a great lover, maybe the greatest lover ever. He liked remembering all that, although the memories made his throat feel hard and choked-up. He drank more—without ice, he couldn’t be bothered reaching out for the ice-bowl. An irritating noise came from under the table, Sayeed’s jiggling knee brushing against the table leg. He kept his eyes on the table and heard them all speaking in Arabic, they went on and on, and this foreign language gave him a headache and he felt so annoyed he had to close his eyes to shut everything off.
“Excuse us for talking in Arabic,” said Magdi. “You must get bored.”
“Please, don’t worry about it. I’d probably do the same if I were you.” Talking revived him. “I don’t mind. I don’t mind staying silent. I like it. Many times I stay silent like that.”
“What were you thinking about?” one of his other friends, Ahmed, asked.
“Ah... Many things. Past things. The time I was young.”
“How old are you?” Sayeed asked.
“I’m fifty-one,” Petro said. “And you?”
“How old you think I am?”
“Don’t know. Twenty-seven or so?”
Petro took guesses about the age of the other Egyptians; he always got it wrong. Ahmed, Magdi, and Mohammed liked this sort of game and they laughed and Petro felt good.
Sayeed didn’t laugh. “You look much older,” he said to Petro.
“Do I?” said Petro and listened to the annoying immigrant saying that Petro looked much older because he was very stressed, and that he had problems and should avoid any kind of hassle and take some rest.
Instead of an answer, Petro turned his eyes on Sayeed’s jiggling heel. He wanted in this way to show him who really was stressed, but soon he realised that that was too subtle a hint for the rough immigrant to grasp.
Sayeed didn’t move his eyes from Petro: “Don’t think too much. Thinking much is no good. You see how much younger we look? That’s because we have no problems. The only thing I care about is fucking. That’s why I fuck so good. Not only me. All the Egyptians who live here.”
Petro felt his blood coursing through his veins, and when he spoke he didn’t care about manners and his eyes weren’t sad anymore. “You may fuck well. But we may fuck well too. Got it?”
Sayeed’s face turned serious, thoughtful, almost respectful. He turned to his countrymen and said something in Arabic.
Petro stayed silent, knowing that he now hated the immigrant. For he might be a gentleman, but gentlemen don’t have to swallow every insult. No, he wouldn’t tolerate this annoying man’s behaviour anymore. His hands trembled from the suppressed anger as he poured ouzo into his glass. He knocked it back, half of it gushed out of his mouth and stained his shirt. He checked to see if the immigrants had noticed. They hadn’t. They spoke in Arabic again. He checked to see if any other customers had noticed. There were no other customers. How long had they been in the taverna? The garden wasn’t bathed in bright sunlight anymore. The sun had moved lower, behind the Imaret. The old Egyptian building had the garden under the control of its shadow now. The interior of the taverna was even darker. And there, in the darkness, Petro’s eyes met with the waiter’s, who puffed on his cigarette and grinned: “Anything else?”
Petro felt for his glass of water, found it, gulped it down. He swept his brow and remembered that he wanted to say something and make Sayeed shut up. But he didn’t know what to say and the shadow of that building behind him felt heavy, so heavy that his shoulders shrank, and as no one was paying him attention anyway, Petro said nothing.
And then suddenly he realised how to gain back his friends’ respect, to confront Sayeed’s continuous and unfair attacks, to turn defeat into victory.
The Egyptians were still speaking in their language. They seemed to be in deep conversation. But Petro was determined. It was his last chance. With a strong voice that broke their conversation, he said, “We must help Rasool.” Looking not at the men, but at his ouzo, he said louder, “We must help him.”
The Egyptians stopped talking and, at last, there was silence.
And Petro the philanthropist repeated: “We must help him. We must do something for him.”
His three friends expected Petro to go on. They wanted him to go on. But Petro didn’t go on. He let his head hang down over his ouzo—but that was part of the plan he had devised, he wanted them to believe he had no strength left; he felt like an insect, pretending to be dead.
Magdi said that what Rasool had done was really bad and that selling drugs was a crime. Mohammed and Ahmed agreed.
And then, when no-one expected him to say any more, Petro raised his head: “Doesn’t matter.” He looked up at his three friends, clearly ignoring the one he hated, and declared triumphantly: “We all make mistakes sometimes. Different kinds of mistakes. It’s the forgiving that matters.”
Ahmed nodded thoughtfully. Magdi and Mohammed looked at Petro with respect.
Petro went on. “Boys, we shouldn’t leave Rasool on his own in the prison. It’s not right.”
“You are right, Petro,” said Sayeed. “First we need to find out what’s going on with Rasool.”
Petro wondered what Sayeed was playing at. If only he wanted to help, it would mean he was acknowledging his mistakes, and that’s all Petro wanted, just a small, tiny gesture, and he would have forgotten and forgiven everything, everything. “We must get some money together for Rasool,” Petro said. “If we all give something, he could find a good lawyer. There are a hundred Egyptians in this town. If everyone could give someth—”
“Right,” Sayeed cut him short, and turned to the others: “What do we do now, guys? It’s getting late. Shall we make a move?”
Magdi, Ahmed, and Mohammed agreed. It was time to get going. But none except Sayeed seemed to be in any hurry. Sayeed insisted and signalled for the bill. “I got things to do,” he said. “We should get going.”
The bill was brought and Petro paid. No tip for the waiter.
The Egyptians stood up, Petro remained seated.
“Are you all right, Petro?” Ahmed asked.
“Hang on,” Petro said. He slipped his hand under the table and buttoned himself up.
On the way back to the harbour Sayeed was walking fast, talking on the phone in Greek. The rest followed him. While Petro was trying to persuade the others to help the drug dealer, he overheard Sayeed and he knew that he was talking with a woman.
When they reached the harbour, Sayeed was already further ahead of them. The rest shook hands and said goodbye.
Petro got into a taxi.
His three friends climbed onto their trawler.
Sayeed kept walking far down the quay.
Petro got out of the taxi. He stood, facing his front door. He entered and closed the door behind him.
His home was empty.
He went into the kitchen, opened the fridge, got out a packet of ham, and ate one slice after the other until the packet was empty. His eyes fell on a jar of chocolate spread. He ate that too.
He lay on the sofa, looked around. Everything was in the right place, tidy. He sighed. His brow was sweaty. He dried it with his palm and smoothed his few hairs back. And then he remembered a time when he had long hair and was young and strong and had dreams and wanted to meet lots of women and be a great lover, maybe the greatest lover ever.
He found the heat annoying and unbuttoned his shirt.
But that wasn’t enough.
He took off his shoes and trousers.
No, that wasn’t enough.
He took off his socks and underwear.
He masturbated, his throat hard and choked from remembering, he masturbated, and reached out for a tissue.
Alexandros Plasatis is an immigrant ethnographer who writes fiction in English, his second language. His work has appeared in US, UK, Canadian, and Indian magazines and anthologies. He lives in the UK and works with asylum seekers. www.alexandrosplasatis.com