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The Yiayiá

© Rodney Bolt 2007
This story may not be reproduced in any form without the author’s permission.
It may not be downloaded or digitally shared.
For permission to publish or reproduce this story in any way, please contact Rodney Bolt or his agent via the Contact page on this site.

The Yiayiá

By Rodney Bolt

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It was Leo’s task to shave the yiayiá. She was 103, and slept on an old door laid out beneath the olive tree. Leo called her yiayiá – though, of course, she wasn’t his ‘granny’ at all. On Sunday mornings, her grandchildren, greats and great-greats all went off to church. Leo wasn’t Orthodox, and despite her proximity to the Pearly Gates, the yiayiá wasn’t much bothered. So together they remained, under the olive tree, as Leo attended to her weekly stubble, and the yiayiá muttered, complained and occasionally ranted, making his task a little hit and miss.

Most of the year, the yiayiá lived in Athens, in a home. But each summer, she was extracted for the annual family exodus from the city to their village. Here she insisted on sleeping outdoors – perhaps because beside the 1,000-year-old olive, her paltry century seemed lighter to bear. By day she remained within the orbit of its intense, sudden shade; sometimes taking a shaky walk to a chair by the well on the kitchen side of the trunk, but mostly curled on her bed, shouting instructions to whoever happened to be in the courtyard. For the yiayiá still had a strong will. She had only begrudgingly allowed the door from the old outside shower to be placed under her thin straw mattress; and it was at her own summoning each night that a member of the family came to cover her with a floral cotton sheet, whereupon she instantly fell asleep.

Leo flipped open the old-fashioned cutthroat razor, dipped the shaving-brush into his bowl of hot water, and with his left thumb and forefinger cautiously steadied the yiayiá’s jaw. She was inclined to snap. This was dangerous because in her 101st year, in gums that had been untenanted for half a century, the yiayiá had suddenly sprouted three new teeth. Her goatee had begun a few years earlier. The yiayiá herself had demanded it be shaved off, despite all evidence that this only seemed to encourage growth. Rumour was that she had been the village beauty, but there were no photographs and no-one around old enough to remember. Her children had gone – Calypso, who now ruled the household, was her granddaughter – and even the Stanopoulos’s  yiayiá on the square was a mere eighty-something, and anyway had lost her mind. The yiayiá spurned mirrors, and her eyes were dim. Who knows how she pictured herself? When Leo had finished, she ran a bent knuckle over her chin and, pleased with the result, chuckled and pinched both his cheeks with extraordinary ferocity.

Leo had come to the island at the very beginning of the summer, on a one-way ferry ticket and with too little money in his pocket for a return journey. Calypso had granted him a room in the house and free meals in the family taverna, in return for teaching the great-greats English every morning. For a little extra cash, he met the ferry to tout for guests to occupy the four rooms she’d had built down one side of the courtyard. Tending the yiayiá was a job in lieu, as the great-greats were excused English on the Sabbath.

To be pernickety, it was Calypso’s husband George who had made Leo the offer. But George was merely an external manifestation of Calypso’s will. Leo smiled as he tipped out the bowl with its flotsam of little white bristles. Poor George, who had anglicised his name in honour of three months once spent in Australia, and carried it around as an echo of distant liberty. Before Leo came along, it had been George’s job to meet the ferry, armed with a few words of scantily remembered English. Leo wondered why George had lighted on him. Something must have signalled that he was broke, lonely and desperate. Perhaps his youth, bonny blond curls and rosy Highland cheeks (pinker now, since the yiayiá’s assault) made him appear innocent and trustworthy. Leo grinned. When George had mentioned ‘my wife Calypso’, the name had conjured in his mind the image of a husky-voiced siren, eyelids half drooped, an engrossing cleavage. Instead, he had been taken up the hill and presented for approval to a beefy, square-jawed stramullion, who swept through her house like an overstuffed armchair blown about by a gale.

Leo tried not to be daunted by Calypso’s ferocity, but was beginning to take his cue from George, who seemed long ago to have realised that any opposition was simply ignored. It wasn’t so much that George was cowed, but that he had long since realised the futility of exerting any energy at all against the tide of Calypso’s will – like a swimmer caught in a current who heeds advice to avoid drowning simply by floating, rather than exhausting himself by thrashing against the flow.

Leo had enough money to leave now, through saving the commission he got touting for guests. But something held him on the island. He was content in this small world, centred on the olive tree, the well, the yiayiá, Calypso – its scope edging outward in small circles, barely extending beyond the great-greats, never reaching further than the sea. Besides, what was there to go to? Back home there weren’t any jobs, his father wasn’t speaking to him, Penny was probably already seeing someone else. Ironic, that. The big blow-up had been about Dad simply not grasping his need to move, to know other people; about Penny just wanting to settle down and get married; about neither of them fathoming the power of his wanderlust. And here he was, rooted to the spot. Barely leaving the house. Not even a social life. He didn’t phone Penny, seldom went out – he didn’t even flirt with the girl guests. Leo upturned his shaving bowl on the stone draining-board and put the razor high on a shelf, out of reach of the great-greats. Then, with a glance out at the yiayiá and down towards the church, he began.

He did it every Sunday. Opening cupboards, poking about the backs of drawers, delving deep into boxes. First time had been in Calypso’s bedroom. He’d been trembling slightly, expecting her suddenly to materialise, as he’d rifled through the wardrobe, slipped a flat hand under neat stacks of knickers, tunnelled an arm through George’s pyjama pile, wondering whether the poor man dared harbour a little stash of porn.

Leo crossed the kitchen. They’d be in church for at least another hour. Calypso’s housedress was draped over the door handle. Very unlike her to be so sloppy. Leo picked it up. It was one of the sleeveless ones. Big plastic buttons. A flower design with odd, abstract tendrils as a background. Mauve, yellow, green and deep blue. Leo put it on. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, and the dress caught him under the arms, tufting out his armpit hair. He buttoned it up across his chest. A little bit tight across the shoulders, but otherwise a surprisingly good fit. He walked to Calypso’s room and looked in the mirror. The dress hung loose and bell-like around his slim waist. Leo wondered whether Calypso would sense that he had worn it. He swirled, letting his curls touch one bare shoulder. Then he checked the bedside cabinets. Nothing different there. Out-of-date condoms in George’s; a locked leatherette box under the spare Bible in Calypso’s. Jewellery, probably. Leo had given it a shake the first time he’d seen it. But that wasn’t really what he was looking for.

“What are you doing in there?” Leo froze. The yiayiá’s voice sounded as if it were coming from just behind his shoulder. “Tipota! Nothing, nothing,” he called back. His Greek was coming along quickly. “Bring me some water!”. Leo hurried out, slinging Calypso’s dress back over the kitchen door. The yiayiá drunk from the well, and from time to time needed a jug filled. She refused to touch tap water. Leo lowered the bucket while the yiayiá watched. If he didn’t know that she could barely see him, he would have thought she was leering, as his chest and arm muscles tautened at the weight. “You should drink this,” cackled the yiayiá as he topped up her jug. “Good, good water. Then you will be like me. Live forever!” The yiayiá roared at her joke. She was always trying to get him to drink from the well, but he didn’t trust it. Not with septic tanks around. “Dhen eima dhipsasmenos, I’m not thirsty” was some of the first Greek he’d learned.

Leo poured out a glass. Again the yiayiá stared at him. Her blue eyes seemed less clouded. Leo gave an uncomfortable half-smile. “Beautiful boy,” she said. It wasn’t a compliment, not even an indirect way of thanking him for the water. She stated it as fact. As if she were applying a label to a picture, teaching someone vocabulary. Perhaps she was sending him up, mimicking his lessons with the great-greats. “Come!” she said. Leo sat next to her on the mattress. Up close the yiayiá was fragrant. Powdery, with a faint scent of flowers. Lilies, perhaps? Jasmine? She leant her face close to his and peered into his eyes. “This is what you want.” The yiayiá slipped a bent hand down the front of her dress, and pulled out a key on a ribbon of tattered velvet. She took Leo’s wrist and pressed the key into his palm. “Now go!” she commanded. At the bottom of the hill, people were beginning to disgorge from church.

Calypso sailed through her kitchen as her retinue hived off to shed their Sunday best. Leo thought he saw a tight smile as she whipped her housedress from the door and took it to her bedroom to change. That week he dreamed every night of keys and swirling patterns of mauve, yellow, green and deep blue.

Next Sunday his hands shook slightly as he held the razor. But the yiayiá was a blank. Unsmiling. Silent. She ignored him when he asked about the key. He tried to charm her. Chattered brightly. Even drank a little well water to elicit some response. But nothing. Back inside, Leo tried the key on Calypso’s leatherette box. It didn’t fit. He rubbed it between thumb and forefinger, as he’d been doing all week. Brass. Too small for a door. A desk perhaps? A box of some sort? Leo searched about for anything else that was locked. Lids, cupboards, drawers all opened at a touch. In the kitchen he found Calypso’s housedress again, and slipped it on for good luck. But the sound of voices coming up the hill startled him, and he went back out into the courtyard, shirtless, with the key safe in the pocket of his shorts.

The yiaiá’s mood persisted for weeks. Every Sunday after shaving her, Leo would curl up on her mattress and chat, breathing in her flowery fragrance, sharing her water jug, and in his uneasy Greek attempting to turn the subject towards the key. But the yiayiá remained stony. Leo wondered whether she wasn’t sickening for something. Calypso was acting oddly, too. Perhaps she and the yiayiá had had a fight. It wasn’t that Calypso spoke to her very much usually, but now the silence between them seemed thick. They appeared angry with each other, but somehow complicit. Like two athletes striving side-by-side for the finishing tape, aware of each other’s every move; a single animal with warring limbs. And Calypso was growing neglectful. She would sometimes not make the bed, and now left her housedress lying about the kitchen whenever she went to church. Always the same one, though. “It’s the Sunday habit,” Leo joked to himself, and took to wearing it while he snooped about. It made him feel a little horny. The whole Sunday thing made him feel a little horny.

Once, many weeks later, Leo saw Calypso surreptitiously sniff the dress and grin. He stopped wearing it after that. But it was always there, lying in the kitchen, beckoning with its big plastic buttons, its gorgeous swirls of mauve and green. One Sunday towards the end of the summer, as Leo rinsed the yiayiá’s shaving bowl, he noticed the dress right there, draped over the draining board beside the sink. He just couldn’t resist picking it up again. It was tighter than before. His sedentary life and Calypso’s food were making him fatter. His pecs had gone soft, and he was growing fleshy around the hips. Even the yiayiá had noticed. She’d been friendlier that morning, telling him that his new chubbiness was because of the well water, for which he’d been developing quite a taste. She was so surprisingly chatty he almost sliced her chin by mistake with the ancient cutthroat. There was just the tiniest of nicks. Leo licked his forefinger and wiped away the blood. The yiayiá stopped talking and smiled.

At the sink, with the dress so beckoning, Leo fell into his old Sunday ritual. Wash bowl. Stash razor. Housedress. Hunt. He still wasn’t sure what he was looking for. Whatever it was, it was related to the reason that he left home. So that nothing was unknown. He wanted to gather secrets. Knowledge. Something about George and Calypso that they let on to no-one else. Maybe not even to each other. Soon after he’d arrived, he had noticed that George was surreptitiously packing clothes into a suitcase that was stored on top of the wardrobe. Changes of underwear, his ‘I Love Australia’ T-shirt. Like a child plotting to run away. But Leo wanted more than that. He longed for a view no-one else had into a private world. Then he, too, would have a secret. Something that made him feel stronger.

The box, when he saw it, startled him. It was on top of a kitchen cupboard among unused cake tins. He had looked through them countless times. It was simply not possible that he could have missed the burnished walnut among the rust-encrusted pictures of fishing ports and goddesses. He would have sworn that it was not there even when Calypso left for church that morning. Perplexed, Leo glanced out at the yiayiá. She was in her chair near the well, and seemed to be singing to herself. The key fitted.

Leo raised the lid. The box was empty save for a small wooden picture frame with two carved, closed panels – an icon, perhaps. The yiayiá had stopped singing. Leo opened the flaps, and let out a sharp sigh. Lifting the frame out of the box, he looked down at the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. An old photo. Hand tinted. She was dark-haired, clearly Greek, yet she stared back out at him with magnetic blue eyes. He knew before he thought about it that this was the yiayiá. There was just one word below the picture: Calypso. And the date: 1922. She must have been twenty-one. As old as he was. Something fell into place, with an inescapable logic. Leo sloughed the housedress onto the kitchen floor, and took his find out into the light.

The yiayiá looked up at him, eyes as blue as those in the photograph. “Eimai Calypso – I  am Calypso,” she said. She sat in her chair, and held open her arms. Gently, she drew him towards her. Leo’s stomach lurched. He pulled back. He couldn’t be doing this! He could not be in love with the yiayiá. That was absurd. It was disgusting. It was mad. It was illegal, surely. What about Penny? But he felt a hand firmly on the back of his neck, breathed in that fragrance of jasmine and lilies, was soothed by the thought of soft, clean skin, crumpled like crushed silk – and he bent forward and kissed her.

The other Calypso’s scream rent through the courtyard. The great-greats ran for cover. The rest all started yelling at once, in Greek he couldn’t understand. But the yiayiá silenced the tirades with a single word: “Children!”. One of her hands gripped Leo’s forearm with extraordinary strength. “He is going to marry me,” she announced, and still clutching on to his arm, started towards the house. No-one else moved. Even Calypso could only manage a half-hearted: “No grandmother of mine is going to marry a penniless Englishman!”

“Scots,” thought Leo in a daze, as the yiayiá, moving faster than he’d ever seen before, led him towards his bedroom. She locked the door behind them.

Next day the undertaker’s van was outside the courtyard gate. It took away the body of a young Scottish man – though some said the corpse was a woman’s. They had seen its full breasts and fleshy hips.

Under the olive tree the yiayiá stroked her stubble and sucked her teeth.
In the kitchen Calypso scrubbed her housedress in a large tub of suds.
And in the bedroom, George slowly unpacked his suitcase.

© Rodney Bolt 2007
This story may not be reproduced in any form without the author’s permission.
It may not be downloaded or digitally shared.
For permission to publish or reproduce this story in any way, please contact Rodney Bolt or his agent via the Contact page on this site.