Read In the Shade of the Monkey Puzzle Tree Online

Authors: Sara Alexi

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Literary, #Travel, #Europe, #Greece, #General, #Literary Fiction

In the Shade of the Monkey Puzzle Tree

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In the
Shade

of the
Monkey

Puzzle
Tree

 

 

 

Sara Alexi

Chapter 1

 

Age 4
0 Years, 5 Months, 6 Days

 

A break in the clouds sends a streak of sharp sun in through the floor-to-ceiling windows, highlighting the curling curtain of smoke hovering above the coffee and
ouzo
drinkers’ greying heads. A dozen conversations drone in a continuous hum, speckled with bursts of laughter and hacking coughs. The high-pitched clack of wood on wood as pieces are energetically slammed on battered backgammon boards provides an intermittent staccato backbeat.

The large room is sparse with no adornment, nothing to break, nothing of which care needs to be taken. No plants to water, no pictures to wipe clean. The untiled concrete floor is painted a light grey and the walls, once a stark white, are now yellowed with age. The paint on the stretchers and top rails of the chairs has been worn through to the wood by hand and foot. Around the edges of the circular metal tables, with their curved tripod legs, the paint is chipped and worn, but their construction remains solid, practical. It
’s a man’s domain.

 

‘No. Not like that. Here, just put the coffee and sugar in together, give it a quick stir. All that messing about just takes time. Look, we have six to make, do four and then two. Hurry up.’

Theo looks past his baba, across the heads of the village men to the shaft of sunlight where a butterfly dances against the smeared window. They looked so clean yesterday after he washed them under grey skies.

As the clouds part further, the sun shines across the village square, hinting at the heat that summer will bring, the promise of freedom from indoors that is on its way. A time when the
kafeneio
tables and chairs will move outside and spread across the paved square, around the empty fountain, and Theo and his father will jog backwards and forwards across the road to serve coffee,
ouzo
, and the occasional brandy. Theo’s relatively youthful step, his flared jeans flapping, a bounce in his limbs and his mop of frizzy, slightly greying hair bobbing next to his baba’s straight gait in dark working trousers and neatly pressed white shirt.


Theo, are you listening?’ Yanni’s voice is hushed but harsh, drowned out by the clamour of laughter, argued politics, and idle gossip that echoes through the ever-shifting smoke cloud. He reaches over the counter and spoons coffee and sugar hastily into the
briki
, the long-handled copper pan used to make rich, dark, Greek coffee, the
kafeneio
’s staple. The
briki
holds just enough water for four tiny cups. Sugar and coffee grounds trail on the counter.

A short, balding man hurries into the
kafeneio
, holding a bunch of flowers. It’s old Odysseus, who keeps chickens and grows aubergines on the outskirts of the village, above the riverbed, where mattresses and other debris are dumped. The chatter in the room hushes and Odysseus looks around at the expectant, familiar faces. Their eyes are on the blooms.


Oh, twenty five years,’ he explains to the room in general. There are various exhalations of breath, a couple of murmurs and ‘ahhs.’ The flowers make sense, and are excused.


Popping in for a stiff one before you go home then?’ a young farmer of about forty asks. The comment is met with titters of laughter from those of his generation.


It was this day, back in 1954,’ Odysseus expands.

Those of the older generation nod sagely. Flowers are a small price for a peaceful home. The talk drifts back to politics, and Odysseus orders a coffee and an
ouzo
. ‘Make it a large one.’

Theo
’s baba picks up a cloth and turns to joke with the customers at the nearest table, keeping the banter going, the light through the wide-open glass door now brilliant on his white shirt.

The butterfly finds its escape.

Theo closes his eyes and exhales the tension.

 

He opens them to see the butterfly land on the concrete edge of the empty fountain in the square, where it is joined by another, then another. In a breeze as soft as a baby’s sigh, a thousand pale butterflies fill the skies, chaotic at first and then swirling in patterns and circling the palm tree and the kiosk by the fountain. They cover the red tiled roofs of the village houses, blank out the blue of the shutters until, like a tornado of gossamer, they gather as one, silent, beautiful, shimmering. Their wings whisper as they dive in through the door of the kafeneio and fill the space above the tables, dispelling the hanging yellow smoke. Theo’s baba looks up in amazement, his arms out wide as if to embrace them. The butterflies’ wings spread wider and turn into feathers, the feet grow talons, curved beaks protrude. The men drinking coffee put down their cigarettes and dice and laugh as if amused by the spectacle. The birds, for that is what they have become, use their little beaks to take up folds in the arms of Baba’s shirt and, without a struggle, they lift him into the air, leaving his shoes behind, the sunshine dazzling off their pristine wings. They circle the high room, Yanni hanging limply, his head gently bouncing off the ceiling like a released helium balloon of the kind sold by the Gypsies in the main square in Saros town. Friends and customers wave and smile as he floats out the door and off over the village. The lady in the kiosk pushes her head out of her tiny window to look up at him as he flies further and further away until he vanishes into the glare of the sun.

 

‘Theo! Stop it.’ His baba throws the cloth at him, and his dream evaporates. ‘Have you done the four?’

Pulling the
briki
off the camping gas stove, Theo twists the black knob to extinguish the flame and pours the brown liquid into the waiting cups. No bubbles sit on the surface, and Theo is embarrassed to set the coffees on the tray. It’s not right.


Get the other two on.’ The old man grabs the tray and turns with a smile to his waiting customers.

Stathis rises from his seat, where he is sitting with Cosmo
’s father. They both wear farmers’ uniforms; dark, old, bagging trousers, light-coloured cotton shirts that have seen better days, the sleeves rolled up, and flat hats. His knees take a moment to straighten. Shuffling across to the counter, he leans over to see what Theo is doing.


This for us?’ he asks, a crooked finger indicating the two waiting cups.

Theo nods as he rinses out the long-handled
briki
.


Take your time.’ Stathis nods. Theo looks up and smiles and Stathis folds his arms on the counter to watch.

Theo still moves like a boy, an energy in his limbs. His greying hair is the only real indication of his middle-age prime. He lights his single-burner camping gas stove and drops the match onto a small hill of matches that have been lit and extinguished for the same purpose. Coffee, water, patience. With Stathis there, Theo does not rush. The water is allowed to heat in the little copper
briki
before the sugar is added. He stirs it to help it dissolve. Stathis smiles. Once the liquid is clear, Theo takes a new tin of Greek coffee and prizes it open with a pair of scissors, holding it out to Stathis so he can breathe in the fresh coffee aroma. He replaces the scissors on their hook by the drawer before adding two heaped teaspoons of grounds to the heating water. The powder sits on top, slowly absorbing the water, until, with a plop, the solids disappear beneath the surface. Theo takes a pencil-thin whisk and begins to vigorously whip the liquid. Satisfied it is homogenised, he pauses and waits for the coffee to boil, the bubbles breaking away from the edges, the foam gathering to make an island in the middle. As the bubbles begin to rise to the top, Theo lifts it gently from the heat, watches the bubbles subside, and puts it back on the heat again. They rise again, he lifts the pan and lowers it again. On the third rise, and just before the mixture overflows, he twists off the gas and deftly pours a little coffee into each of two waiting cups, sharing the creaming froth and filling them both level to the brim. The well-dissolved sugar makes the tiny bubbles glisten, a sheen of foam across the top.


Every bubble on the top of a coffee is a coin coming the coffee maker’s way.’ Stathis recites the old wives tale with a chuckle. ‘You would be a rich man if your baba would let you.’ He says it with a smile and no malice before picking up the cups, each on its saucer, and taking them to the table where his friend is waiting.


Two more, Theo. Have you not finished the last two?’ His baba looks over to Stathis.


Leave the boy, Yanni,’ Stathis grunts. ‘I have them here.’ He shuffles off to his table.


The coffee is better if you take a little time,’ Theo says, throwing the teaspoon into the sink and running the
briki
under the tap, splashing water liberally, before banging the pan back onto the counter. He stops moving to stare his baba in the eyes.


When this place is your own, you can do as you like, but right now, we need two more, one sweet—
glyko
, one medium—
metrio
. Two
ouzo
chasers. Also a beer and a soda water. We have salami and cheese on bread for a meze to go with the beer, the bread is in a bag down there, there is one tomato in the fridge, so cut it thin. No olives.’

Theo doesn
’t remind his baba that it was he who brought the bread from the bakery this morning, nor that there is a bag of olives that he put in under the loaf. Instead, he looks to see who would want a beer so early in the day. Mitsos has come in with Manolis. Mitsos looks over and half-raises a hand. Theo grins back and nods but looks away again quickly before Manolis can catch his eye.

He lights the stove with the
briki
on top and heats the water again. Water, sugar, coffee, patience.


Hey. How’s it going?’ Mitsos leans on the counter.


I could ask you that.’ Theo nods in Manolis’ direction.


His latest idea is for a quick way to fish.’ Mitsos’ voice is quiet, hands in his pockets.


Are you going to do it?’ Theo asks, stirring the coffee briskly.


He has asked, but something does not feel right … You think it is okay to say ‘no’ to a friend?’

Theo hesitates. The very first act of unkindness he can recall was from Manolis, when they were young, at the village school with its brightly coloured railings. Manolis, the same age but so much taller, older in his head, called on him one evening, late after school. Theo
’s amazement at the visit lost him his tongue and he stood awkwardly, not sure how to act, not knowing what to say, excited by this attention from the loudest boy in the village. Manolis behaved as if they were best friends, slapping him on the back and calling him ‘
File mou
’—’My Friend’—before going on to swear that the following day at school, everyone was to go in their carnival costumes, that the teacher was going to give a lesson about masquerades. Manolis did not want Theo to miss out on the fun.

Theo thrilled putting together his pirate
’s uniform later that night, borrowing a hanky from his
pappous
to tie over one eye, using his walking stick to practise hopping with one leg tucked up behind him, stealing his Mama’s stripy blouse and tearing up an old pair of shorts to fray the bottoms. He went to school early the next day and hid till the bell went to surprise everyone with his brilliant costume, his pride puffing up his tiny frame, his hands trembling with excitement.

He can also remember the mortification at being the only person in school in fancy dress that morning. The children laughed, the teachers laughed and, worst of all, his baba laughed when he got home at the end of the day. Manolis sat with a satisfied grin, looking at him most of the day as he squirmed in his torn, tight shorts and his mother
’s stripy blouse, humiliated. That was also the first time he can remember feeling his temper rising, bubbling up like the coffee, frothing and steaming, ready to spill over the top. So powerful, it terrified him.

His mother
’s hugs brought him off the boil that day, but he hasn’t forgotten the unkindness, nor has he lost the fear of what might happen if he does lose his temper. He avoided Manolis after that and he still does now, some thirty years later.


Theo, coffees?’ his baba asks through closed teeth, glaring at Mitsos. Yanni puts cash in the till and pulls out the change before returning to his arena to continue conducting the morning’s affairs.

For Theo, it
’s another perfect example of why and how he has learnt never to let his
briki
of rage boil over. In his youth, his anger was so powerful, it scared him, so he kept it well under control. In his twenties, when he began work in the
kafeneio
, his fear of his baba kept a lid on his pan of fury. In his thirties, Damianos helped him keep a lid on it.

Theo misses Damianos. It has only been a couple of months since he left, but nevertheless, life has lost a bit of sparkle. Cosmo is still around, but he has not the humour of Damianos and, besides, since taking the job at the post office, he is in the
kafeneio
less frequently. Two empty bar stools in front of his counter.

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