Sunday, 4 September 2011

Opus 4

'Opus 4'. I found this a few hours ago on You Tube, after googling 'art of noise no sun november' and so heard it again for the first time in 23 years. It's a pretty little aural kaleidoscope by Art of Noise. Opening this page in two or three tabs and then setting the video off in each one with a couple of seconds delay produces an interesting effect, like listening under a bell-jar. You might have more pressing things to do, of course. Anyway, it soooo brings to mind my first visit to Athens in 1988, where I first heard it, and when I decided that as soon as I could, I would live there.

I stayed with a friend, Artemis, who had recently moved to Athens from Kavala where we first met. I was in my first full-time, permanent job at a language school in Cambridge and despite the regular pay and generous holidays, was climbing the walls with boredom and the predictability of the days. Artemis invited me to stay, and I was off like a shot.

She was working at the time as an apokleistikí, meaning ‘exclusive’, which is to say a private nurse in a public hospital. If you are hospitalized in Greece and have insufficient private health insurance, your family will have to undertake all the feeding, bed-bathing, shit-shovelling and arse-wiping necessary for the duration of your indisposition, unless you hire an apokleistikí from an agency to relieve you of some of the messier jobs. Artemis worked nights, ministering to the ever-dwindling needs of the moribund. She wrote to me: ‘I clean bums and willies by the cartload,* and send as many as I can to the Next World’. This was a joke in 1988, hand-written on a post card, Twitter as yet undreamed of. No 'Inappropriate Remarks from Healthcare Personnel' watchdog was ever charged with investigating the source of the communication. Greeks are always convinced that other people will cut corners wherever possible and one of Artemis's charges, when she had laved his member, would palpate the glans then pass his fingers under his nose to ensure he was getting his money's worth.

Artemis lived in a 'δώμα' dhóma, which is a tiny room perched on the top of a block of flats, like a paper-clip box on a filing cabinet. The block was on Doxa Patri, the topmost street on the side of Lycavittos that faces the Acropolis, and from the enormous terrace she commanded a magnificent view over Athens all the way to Piraeus and the sea, the receding white buildings way below like a plane of smashed, sun-bleached bones radiating back the afternoon heat. The dóma had a cupboard-like bathroom where you had no option but to sit on the loo to have a shower, and I rendered at least one bog-roll a day useless by accidentally drenching it. We cooked dinner outside on a calor gas ring under an awning, and with it drank cheap wine by the vat before Artemis went off to work around ten o'clock on Epaminondas, her elderly motorbike. Nobody seemed to mind her showing up squiffy, probably because most of the people she had dealings with were hanging on to this life by a thread, aware by now that all is vanity and, ε, so what if she's half-cut? In fact it was only by the sheerest luck that she showed up at all, given the traffic, the retsina and the fact that Greeks in those days thought crash-helmets were for pussies.

After she had left, I would play ‘Opus 4’ a few times, then Glass’s ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ up to around the mid-point where it starts to drive you insane, then set forth about midnight to a gay bar in Kolonaki, where the lads were up-front and horny in a way utterly unexampled in Cambridge’s lone gay club at the time. Nobody did the pussyfooting 'do you come here often/can I buy you a drink?' bit that I was used to and so hated. On the first evening I was approached within fifteen minutes by a gorgeous young man called Michalis. He observed strict protocol:

1) 'What's your name?' 'Steve'
2) 'What's your zodiac sign?' 'Pisces.' Eh? 'Fish!'
3) 'Have you got a place?' 'Certainly have.'

And we were away to the dóma for erotic fireworks, no messing. ‘Fucky Nell,’ I thought, ‘Sod Cambridge, I’m moving here as soon as I possibly can.’ I kept his underpants as a souvenir.

The following evening Michalis said ‘I have a friend who likes you’ and introduced me to Yannis, with whom I went back to the old dóma for another night of raging lust. Wine, men and song: this was the life. Yet truly in the midst of life we are in death, for fifteen minutes after I had tipped Yannis out into the night, Artemis returned early. While the lad and I had been at one another like starving men attacking a roast, she had been stuffing cotton wool up the arsehole of her newly deceased patient. I should explain for those unfamiliar with postmortem care that packing the back passage with cotton wool is standard procedure, not just a desperate way to pass the time on your shift. Every apokleistikí got a day off when her patient slipped off the perch, and later we hurtled round Athens on Epaminondas and went to buy meat and fish at the central market, a stinking hall of skinned corpses swinging on hooks, their guts piled red, white and blue, their shiny, chocolate-coloured livers and kidneys dribbling juice on bloody marble slabs. Slithery scraps of fat and flesh were squashed into the dust on the floor. It was like a mass execution of traitors.

Well, anyway, that quaint little piece of music heard once again this morning reminded me that I committed myself to living in Greece because the 29 year-old me wanted wine, chaos and cock, all more readily and cheaply available in Athens than in Cambridge, above job security, a bank account and a pension scheme, God help us.

I mentioned our boozy dinners of September 1988 to Artemis last time I saw her. Now retired and serious and teetotal, she shook her head ruefully at the irresponsibility of belting through Athens on Epaminondas, unhelmeted and sozzled. I feel a pang of nostalgia for those nights, though, on hearing that odd little song: the smell of frying squid, the grassy olive oil on the salad, the sluicing down of ice-cold retsina, the tangled necklaces of lights spread out below us all the way to the sea, the thought of horny, handsome lads and the waiting for midnight when I would set out to see if I might get off with one.
Lovely photo of Artemis in 2012, looking arty.


* 'με το κιλό' = 'by the kilo' but that sounds wrong in English.


Teena in Toronto said...

Happy blogoversary :)

Vilges Suola said...

Thank you! I had actually forgotten.


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