LETTER FROM DUBLIN – BEST NEW WRITER PRIZE 1997 – EXTRACT
FOR THE PAST 6 YEARS Stelios has been living at 5, Rue de Chalampé. Or so to speak, since Stelios, a sociologist responsible for Third World development programs, spends the best part of the year in Africa.
Mme Radamsky cleans his house now and then, collects his mail, pays his bills, and bakes him cakes when he comes home. Cakes which even Mme Rossellini would envy.
I hadn’t seen Stelios since last November. I’d heard he was doing a good job down there, and that he’d be returning in the spring; but I don’t suppose you imagine that when April arrives, the first thing that springs into the mind of a workaholic like me, who enjoys the overcast skies of Strasbourg as others enjoy the Mediterranean sun, is Oh, spring has come!
So there I was in my office, sunk in the depths of my winter and stuffed with papers and meetings, when Stelios found me the day before last May-day. Stelios, Mr. Camel Trophy. Even Roxanne knew his nickname. Tanned as he was every time he came back to cloudy old Strasbourg, and wearing his a-long-way-from-the-EU outfit, Camel Trophy suited him better than his name. Roxanne was thrilled with him: Stelios’ presence reminded her of holidays, she used to say, and in response he’d pose me the same question every time.
“When are you going to give the girl a holiday, so that I can take her with me?”
“You malaka, that same joke again? Can’t you ever think of anything new?” I said and Roxanne laughed since ‘malaka’ was one of the five Greek words she knew.
“What’s new?” I said as we entered my office. “How were things? Roxanne, let me have just a quarter of an hour for my friend”, I added, turning towards her and closing the door behind us.
Stelios was a piggy-bank friend. That’s what Marina called those friends you rarely speak to and see even less, but who are always there for you, as handy in your pocket as you are for them. We were already acquainted through our professional correspondence before my first trip to Gabon—Dear Mr. Aliferis, Dear Mr. Stavropoulos and so on. But when I arrived in Gabon—from the very first day of my stay there—an inexplicable chemistry made us both feel there’d always been something missing till then. If my first visit to Gabon was the beginning of our friendship, the second was its confirmation. Until then, Stelios had left me believing that for some special, non-professional, reason he wanted to continue working there at any price, but it took him two more years to reveal his secret to me.
“Don’t make any other arrangements, you’re staying at my place”, I remember he’d written, and I’d considered it so natural that I answered just a couple of days before my departure with a brief message. Arriving Monday, see you then, Nasos.
Stelios came to Libreville to meet me in his jeep.
“Chief, today’s agenda contains chit-chat, good food, and revelations, so I’ll take you straight to Labarené. You can start the inspection tomorrow”, he’d said.
On my first trip to Gabon, it had seemed completely accidental that I hadn’t visited Labarené, where Stelios’ house happened to be.
We rolled down the jeep’s side flaps so we wouldn’t be soaked by the rain and let fly with the bullshit, until Stelios pulled on the hand-brake and said, “Prepare yourself for a surprise, pal”. Still in bullshitting mode, I said, “The chief has seen it all, my boy” and followed him in.
That day in Labarené, Stelios presented to me Marimà. A beautiful, pregnant Gabonèse of the Bandu tribe who welcomed me with a broad smile, a handshake, and a very Greek, “kalos irthes”.
“We are expecting a baby in two months’ time”, said Stelios, as if my surprise was confined to how near the birth was. “The old women in Labarené say it’ll be a girl”, he added. I don’t know why, but the only thing I could say as I turned to him—and immediately realized it sounded like a riddle—was, “Stelios, my old son, douze points ”.
If nothing else, I earned myself two uneasy smiles in return, so I didn’t feel I was the only astonished fool around.
After a couple of months, Camel Trophy really did have a daughter, Aisa. I received an envelope marked strictly confidential with a photo of Marimà with the baby in her arms and a note, which read, Pal, think of me if you come across a small, cheap house in Strasbourg. Thus it was that Stelios inherited 5, Rue de Chalampé from Katerina, who left for Greece.
Marinaki, you never got to meet Stelios. You hurled that get lost at me—I swear I really wanted to in the days after that drunken night—and then you disappeared behind the opaque glass of passport control. My one and only Marinaki, Stelios gave me your letter that day before Mayday. He placed the yellow envelope on my desk and said nothing about it while we chatted. Only when he got up to leave did he say, “I mustn’t forget. This came to Chalampé for you eight months ago. Radamsky gave it to me with some other nonsense. Have a look, it’s marked personal ”.
Roxanne must have thought Stelios had brought some very bad news about the programs when I snapped down the intercom, “Don’t let anybody disturb me till further notice”. As I recall the moment now, calmly, I see how concerned she must have been, poor thing, because when I came out of my office at least an hour later, she looked at me expecting me to say something about work, but I only uttered, “Roxanne, leave everything for tomorrow; if anybody asks for me, I’m out for the day” and left.
So a trip to Dublin, huh? Hello and cheers, huh, you little liar you? So you pop up again after nine years, do you? You want it all in this life, don’t you? You come and go whenever you want, you bother whoever you feel like bothering, destroy their peace and quiet and don’t give a damn, right? You play the tambourine and let everybody else dance, huh? Well fuck you! Yeah, you heard me. Me telling you. Me, who for three months ran after you begging forgiveness for one night, for which I took all the blame. As if only I were to blame. As if you weren’t there, weren’t a part of it; as if you didn’t know a thing about what happened. You went and told Giorgos everything, without so much as a thought for how I felt. And knowing Giorgos knew, me having to swallow my pride every time I asked to speak to you. You thought I wouldn’t find out that you’d told Giorgos the whole story. You were wrong. I found out, just like I found out Giorgos didn’t condone your behaviour and kept telling you one night wasn’t grounds enough to destroy a friendship. That’s how far we went. Egotist! Self-centred egomaniac! Giorgos defending me and you there spitting at me! You really think you punished me, don’t you? Well, don’t kid yourself.
My head was full of curses that afternoon. Driving like a madman, I was surprised to register that I was approaching Luxembourg with the yellow envelope next to me, thrown on the seat.
It was raining. The windscreen wipers were working at full speed. If I’d found you there in front of me when I came out of my office, I swear I’d have slapped you. And if anything had reminded me of the yellow envelope next to me, as I gripped the steering wheel as though it were your arms, I’d have thrown it out the window. I stopped, though, on the right-hand side of Avenue de la Liberté and pulled on the hand-break.
What do you remember of Avenue de la Liberté? I am very happy you are well. So there is a Phoebes in your life now. Mister Probably, right? It’s Dublin then. I don’t remember us ever travelling to that city. Who’s Mary and who’s Costas? So, little Andreas has finished university, huh?
It was raining. I stopped the wipers and turned off the engine. The benign cloudiness that makes you lose all sense of time, the driving rain that prohibited any visibility beyond the car windows, and the terrible nostalgia that had succeeded my incredible anger like an embrace, helped me light my pipe and calmly reread the longest letter you’d ever sent me.
Translated by Lilly Andritsakis / Edited by Michael Eleftheriou