The Evangelismos Hospital and the sculpture 'Ο Δρομέας' 'The Runner'
I’ve already mentioned that Kolonaki is the posh bit of central Athens. Kolonaki Square, or to give it its polysyllabic Greek name, Plateia Filikis Etaireias, is a place where the sort of people who like to see and be seen go in their designer gear to shell out on designer beer, designer food and extortionately-priced scotch. Ten minutes walk away is Marasli* Street. There in the nineties you had Mario’s restaurant, where the clock told nine forty-five all day everyday, and the where the menu was never changed. You had the Smallest Café in the World, a shop just big enough to accommodate a fridge, a counter, a three foot diameter round table and a few beer crates to sit on while you drank your Amstel. There was a dark, poky supermarket run by an irascible elderly couple, and a wine shop whose proprietor was never seen to smile. Other establishments sold surgical gloves, crutches, slings, trusses, bedpans, catheters, pulleys, inflatable rubber cushions and tubes, props, pads, supports and aids for aching, ailing, leaking bodies, for on Marasli stands the Evangelismos Hospital, and if you are in third class accommodation there, your relatives must undertake most of the nursing care for you. Wherefore enjoy seeing and being seen over in the plateia while ye may, for Marasli is where ye could well end up.
A small bunch of elderly British and American ex-pats had lived in and around Marasli for years. They were ‘illegal aliens’, not that anybody gave a stuff. Most were far-gone in drink and not long for this world in any case. Two of the Americans, Sheila and John, had been journalists. They had come to Greece ages ago, liked the life, liked the cheap booze, liked the fact that nobody hassled you for papers, and without ever really planning to, had stayed. (‘Greece is like fly-paper’ a Canadian ex-pat once said to me.) In his seventies, John developed some problem with his legs, and shuffled stiffly about on crutches. Neighbours began to complain of the stench emanating from his flat and of the cockroaches that this attracted. When he was at length taken away in an ambulance, the floor of the flat was found to be splattered with several weeks’ worth of shit. He had been unable to get to the bathroom and could not in any case have sat down on the lavatory. Lacking money and relatives, he spent his last few days under a sheet in a hospital ward, naked, unshaven, unattended. There was nothing left to do but die, so he died.
I learned about this from a colleague, Alison, who had lived in Kolonaki for four years before I moved there. She’d had our secretary phone round all the hospitals in Athens to find which one had recently admitted a semi-paralysed old American man with no family and apparently no history. By the time they managed to locate him, there was nothing anyone could or would do.
Alison and I often ate at Mario’s absolutely-no-frills-whatsoever-just-forget-about-frills-OK? restaurant, because it was dirt cheap and Alison took great pleasure in finding the most economical way to do everything. The food was not bad for the price, and most evenings of the year you could sit out on the pavement and observe the traffic, the white-coated doctors flicking fag-ash everywhere, and the endless coming and going of the halt and the lame and their dozens of family members. It was a good deal more entertaining than watching the overdressed posers and bimbos over at the square. Frequently Sheila would join us.
Sheila was gaunt and pale, and looked about seventy, although she may well have been younger. She wore a scarf tied in a knot at the back of her head to cover her thinning hair. She had a contralto voice and spoke slowly in a patrician American accent. She could be very personable if plenty of wine was available. ‘We are, uh,… enthoosiastic,’ she said, when we had sunk yet another carafe of Mario's retsina in no time flat. This was the signal to ask Mario for more. Sheila had no home of her own, but lived in the Kolonaki flat of an Englishman of her acquaintance, while he was in his other flat in Poros. When he wanted to come back to Athens, Sheila and her cat had to pack and get the hydrofoil to Poros, until such time as The Man felt like leaving Athens again. The important thing was that they should not coincide. Along with most of Sheila’s so-called friends, The Man couldn’t abide her. She was, they all said, self-centred, sarcastic and ungrateful but possessed of a knack for making people feel sorry for her.
‘Sheila’s locked out of the flat’ Alison said on the phone. ‘Oh, bloody hell, what do I do now?’
Alison and I both lived in tiny places and the problem, should Alison take Sheila in, would be how to get rid of her if it transpired that the English bloke had simply turfed her out. In the event, Sheila settled uncomplainingly on her bags in the doorway of her building and Alison gave her 5000 drachmas to buy food. If you were careful, this sum could feed you for three days or so. Passing by the doorway on her way home from work, Alison stopped to ask Sheila if she was OK. Had she bought any food?
‘Oh, yeah, I um… bought a few things…’ Sheila murmured, and rummaged about among her belongings. She had bought two dozen rolls of kitchen paper and a box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates, now liquefied in the July heat. Plainly, age and the booze were getting to her.
The Englishman must have returned, because their version of normality was restored. I remember a few more evenings with Sheila after this, at Mario’s and in Café 48, the little bar across the road from my flat. She looked more and more like a bag-lady as time passed. One evening she was evicted from Café 48 because she had mistaken the corner of the little back room for the ladies’ loo, and begun to untruss in full view of the customers. A week or two later when she tried to come into the bar she was refused entry. She gave a sad little nod of understanding as she was turned away. The effects of dementia, in the early stages, come and go. People do and say insane things and then wake up to the knowledge of what they did or said. Sheila was enduring the pain, fear and humiliation alone.
Eventually Sheila was too dotty to cope by herself, and none of her alleged friends was around to help, so Alison and a friend of hers contacted the Missionaries of Charity at Kolonos, who agreed to take her in for a while. Knowing that no Greek taxi driver would take a urinous bag-lady anywhere, Alison and Jane dowsed themselves with perfume and sat Sheila between them on the back seat, hoping that they would be at least half way to Kolonos before the ammonia fumes pierced the fragrant clouds. They got Sheila safely to the sisters, but she was in no wise grateful, complaining that she had to get home as she had 'work to do' and just who were these goddam peasants anyway?
The rest of the tale is predictable. After a spell, Sheila upped and left the Sisters, who were no doubt relieved. She collapsed in the street some while later and was taken into the Evangelismos, where, having no money and no relatives, she was probably pretty much ignored. There was nothing left to do but die. So she died.
*Stress on the final syllable: /maraz'li/