Friday, 27 August 2010

Exorcism pt. III

Continued from Part II

The brigadier was going from bad to worse, as he hadn’t had a whole-night’s sleep in weeks. He started to forget things, turned up to work in a dirty uniform, unshaven and deranged. He forgot his tendency to bully the major and his other subordinates, and was especially absent-minded to the point where he started leaving classified documents and important keys all over the camp. Despite his macho façade and his pretences of warrior status, he was a man constantly fighting to maintain control over everything and everyone in his life. He kept everyone at arm’s length, lest they saw through him and lost their fear and respect for him. He claimed to like guns and shooting and all things army, but at heart he detested it all. Weapons made his hands greasy and he hated the loud mayhem of practice shooting. He occasionally had to put on a show for the sake of hierarchy, but he loathed it all. His weapon of choice was one of his expensive pens tucked into his breast pocket, and his usual target was the daily crossword. He just felt that things worked out better when people feared him and did as he said-so he left no space for contradictions and arguments in any aspect of his life.

One afternoon he fell asleep in the office, only to wake up late at night when everyone was gone. As his driver had taken his leave, he decided to walk home. Passing through the sleepy village’s narrow streets, mud brick houses and dark arches, he felt that someone or something was following him, as if the dark itself was conspiring against him. He started walking faster, his legs making a vain attempt to run but failing to shift his heavy frame. When he finally got home he had the look of a mad man. His wife tried to calm him down, bathed him and put him to bed as if he was a baby. Then she picked up the phone. “Good evening Yiannís. We need to talk. Yes, tomorrow morning, I’ll come to the church. Thank you, goodnight.”

The brigadier was surprised to see his brother-in-law in his office. He couldn’t remember arranging a ceremony for the troops and it was definitely not a national holiday. Papa Yiannís had arrived informed and trod around the topic very carefully to avoid exposing the poor woman’s intervention. “You look tired Sofokli if you don’t mind me saying so. Have you been busy at work or partying hard?” he joked. When the brigadier tried to dismiss the priest’s concern, the priest insisted. “Seriously Sofokli, I’m worried about you as a friend and relative, and the man responsible for your soul. Is there something you want to tell me?” When the brigadier dismissed his concerns once again, the priest erupted in rage. He charged at him, grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him violently. “For fuck’s sake man! Look at you! You look like you’ve just crawled out of the sewer and you’re crazier than Pello-Kokos. I’ve seen men end up in the asylum for less! Tell me what’s going on before I kick your head in!” 

The brigadier had never heard the priest swear, or threaten with violence, and was shocked at his directness but also at his strength. The priest was a young man and was far from being typical. He was rather pragmatic and sceptical about any kind of claims to the supernatural, but also understood its great value to the Church’s cause. He was a rather secular priest, playing guitar in a local rock band and occasionally playing football for the village team. He was in fact quite a good player, with a tendency to get stuck in and even have the odd fight. In the evenings he turned up at the coffee house, played pool and darts and smoked endlessly. The only thing that made him a priest were his beard and cassock. But the brigadier was shocked none the less and immediately explained to him what he had experienced in the past few weeks.

Papa Yiannís listened with caution. When the brigadier finished, he sighed in desperation. He’d been hearing these stories for a while but was utterly dismissive. “Sofokli, there are no ghosts, this is nonsense.” Papa Yiannís went on to explain to the brigadier the local legend of a young girl who was murdered around the chapel of St George by a villain and whose spirit is said to roam the area around the anniversary of her death every August. The priest had a cynical take on the tale and treated it as damaging superstition. “You know the tale of Pafitis, don’t you Sofoklis? Old man Pafitis rode to the cemetery on his donkey one evening to light a candle by his late wife’s grave. He dismounted and drove a spike into the earth onto which he tied the donkey. He turned and got up to go to the grave, when he felt something holding his vraka* back. He thought the dead had reached out from their graves and were holding him back and he died from fear. In fact he’d pinned down his own vraka when he was tying the donkey. They found him dead in the morning, his vraka pinned to the ground and full of shit.” The brigadier stared at him with blank eyes. “What I’m trying to say is that this ghost story is as ridiculous and silly as the story of old man Pafitis. We have to get over it now. For the sake of your sanity, your wife and your soldiers.”

“Please Yianní, can’t you do something? I am really tormented”, insisted the brigadier, his spherical body sunken in his chair. “You are tormented because you have fear in you, and you believe in this crap.” “Can’t you do something, a blessing, an exorcism, something? The soldiers have been seeing things too, something is not right, for sure.” “Listen, you are an intelligent man. If it makes you feel better, we can have a ceremony and consecrate the grounds again, with the soldiers present. Hopefully this will make everyone calm down so we can get on with our lives. I want a favour in return though.” “Anything, as long as we can put this matter to bed once and for all.”

On the following day a sombre procession began from the outpost. The troops, some of which were carrying crosses and the banner of the Virgin which Papa Yannís provided, Captain Kitsis, Major Troullos, the brigadier, Mastre Hambís and Linda the dog were all walking slowly behind the priest’s determined and fearless figure. He was chanting and burning incense all the way to the end of the trench where the bones were found. When they got there, the group still cowering with fear but also hopeful, the priest recited prayers to banish the evil spirits. He went on to sprinkle holy water with a bunch of basil and the cross held in his right hand, making the sign of the cross. It all had a strange resonance in the peaceful countryside. The wind was lightly shaking the cypress trees and there was not even a cloud to blemish the blue sky. When it was all over they all looked relieved and happy. The priest turned around to address them. “My children, now all this is over and laid to rest. I urge you to go back to your daily routine without fear. The Lord will protect you and shelter you from all evil.”

For the next few weeks the soldiers whitewashed the chapel, repaired the door, rebuilt the perimeter wall which was crumbling away and fixed the gate. They pulled the weeds and cleaned up, just as Papa Yannís had ordered. They had a renewed air of youthful cheer and arrogance, their playfulness had returned, as if Papa Yannís’ prayers had disintegrated their worries and cleansed their minds from all doubts and fears. They started teasing each other, splashing Sotirakis’ boots with whitewash and pretending they were ghosts howling and laughing. It was all back to normal it seemed, they were eighteen again.

Papa Yannís came with the brigadier on the last day and together they complimented the soldiers for their work. “Perhaps this ghost should come more often”, Papa Yannís joked. The brigadier looked back at his best, ubiquitous and loud as usual, but also happy it was all over. The soldiers gathered their tools, spades, rakes, brushes and buckets and started walking back towards the outpost. Mastre Hambís would be coming by later with some kléftiko and beers.

Nobody noticed the black-clad figure peering at them from inside the chapel.

Vraka=traditional trousers/shalvar worn in Cyprus and Crete

Part of the Army Tales

Image from here

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Exorcism pt. II

Continued from Part I

To make things worse, the squad’s bookworm, Sotirakis, had been reading Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft recently, and his wild imagination conjured images of masked aggressors, outlandish beasts with claws and fangs. He’d sit with the rest at night and always start with something like “what if..”, weaving an improbable probability of monsters, ghosts and ghouls prowling the night after the men’s souls. They often tried to shut him up. Antonís threatened to break his legs if he didn’t stop. Unfortunately, Sotirakis had frequent nightmares as a result, crucially waking up screaming as the oneiric beast was about to catch up with him on his patrol and rip his lungs out. He’d occasionally wake everyone else with his screams, and as they were already scared, Sotirakis’ screams froze their blood, until they realised what happened and started cursing him. He then started reading Huckelberry Finn again just for a change.

Patrols passing near the chapel of St George thought they saw a figure in the cypress trees, lurking in the dark, although it may well have been the branches swaying in the night breeze. One night, as they were playing cards and singing, trying to beat the boredom, they heard scratching on the roof. They all fell silent and froze, listening what sounded like a huge pair of claws scraping the roof. In the end Kostís went out and saw that one of the branches of the eucalyptus tree was so low it started to scrape the roof. They cut it down the following morning.

They easy excuse for most things was the enemy. The Turks were probably teasing them, crossing the ceasefire line at night and throwing stones at them or crying out to frighten them. They kept telling themselves that, but didn’t really believe it. They kept their weapons loaded and bayonets fixed just in case.
Things went from bad to worse, when they stopped going on patrols and manning the detached outpost altogether. The threat of punishment was somehow preferable to the threat of the unknown. They’d take a scolding from the brigadier or the captain any time to facing the long walk in the dark to relieve the guard. Sometimes they agreed to keep guard in pairs, doing effectively double shifts. That was the only way they’d brave the dark. The patrols kept moving, as opposed to finding a sheltered spot for a nap as they used to. They stopped by the guard posts for longer periods, sitting all together, smoking and pretending things were all right.

Eventually Captain Kitsis found out about all this and turned up at the outpost to calm things down.  He thought that a considerate approach might work better than punishments flying. He tried to entertain their fears, claiming that they were just seeing things, but to no avail. They agreed in principle to go back to normal, but things just became worse after Kostís swore he saw some shadows follow him on his way to the outpost. They went back to spending their nights indoors and going everywhere in groups. Eventually, the regimental snitch grassed them up to the brigadier. They knew they were in for some trouble when they saw his car come up the drive unexpectedly, late one morning. The gate guard trying in vain to hold him up in order to give the rest some time to scrub up. He’d brought Major Troullos with him, as if to tell everyone off together. This caused Troullos great embarrassment as he knew nothing about what was going on.

“So what’s this I hear?” he addressed the assembled conscripts. “Apparently you lot have been seeing ghosts and what have you.” Nobody responded. “Can someone explain to me what’s going on?” he insisted. “Sergeant?” “Well, sir, it’s just that the men have been seeing and hearing strange things since we dug up that trench by the chapel.” “What about it?” demanded the brigadier, his face already beginning to feel the heat, droplets of sweat breaking on his forehead. “Well, there were some bones there, and we think we’ve disturbed the dead.” 
“Nonsense! Are you saying there are ghosts? Don’t answer that. There are no such things as ghosts, lads”, changing to a friendlier tune. “I can imagine how here in the wilderness you can imagine things, but I assure you there’s nothing to be afraid of. Generations of soldiers have passed from here and we never heard anything like that” he reasoned, conveniently neglecting the events of 1982. “Now listen, let’s all take a walk together to the chapel and see, except for the guard of course”, he chuckled.

They walked down the trenches, approaching the place the bones were found. When Kostís pointed out the place, the brigadier kicked it lightly with his boot, laughing. “What, this pile of dirt? Some dog probably buried a bone here and you found it. If there were ghosts here, where are they now? I’m actually kicking their ground.” The soldiers looked in disbelief. “Listen, all this is nonsense, I guarantee you that there is nothing to be afraid of. I know you lads have been really tired with long shifts, so to show you I mean it, I’ll post four more men up here, to help with the shifts and give you a break”, he added, eager to wrap this up and head back to the village where the mayor was waiting for him for lunch. The troops were visibly pleased at this, as they hadn’t had proper leaves for a long time.

They returned to the outpost, calmer and more relaxed. It probably was all in their heads; it was easy to get carried away in this solitude. They went about their business, and the officers got into the back of the car and the car drove away. As they were going over the bridge, they saw an old woman standing there, waiting for them to pass. The brigadier turned and looked at her, but thought nothing more of it. About half a mile down the road, there was another old lady, a typical yiayia dressed in black. As the car drove fast past her, raising a cloud of dust, she cursed at them, waving her hand. “Stop the car” ordered the brigadier. He shuffled himself out of the car and looked, but the old lady was nowhere to be seen. He thought it was weird, and stood looking around bemused. “You did see that, didn’t you Troullos?” he asked as he entered the car. “Yes, of course.” “Old hag probably disappeared in the trees” he dismissed unconvincingly.

But it did have an effect on the brigadier after all. He kept waking up at night, hearing a woman crying, and strange noises from the street. The yiayia appeared in his sleep, standing on the bridge, silent and dressed in black, her eyes staring hard at him, deeply set in her wrinkled face. He woke up, time and again covered in sweat, cold sweat rather than the usual sticky sweat and humidity of summer. His wife tried to calm him down but in his moment of vulnerability and insecurity he growled at her to hide his distress under a veil of testosterone. “It’s this bloody heat woman, don’t you bug me as well now” he snapped at her. His wife, a patient and stoic woman who learnt to submit to him and his outbursts over the years, just kept quiet once again, preferring to vent her own frustrations on other things. The brigadier’s nightmares didn’t go away, however. The yiayia kept appearing in his dream, always the same scene, her standing on the bridge, unmoved by the gusts of wind and dust and sometimes pointing at him; him unable to shake off her stare and implied menace to him.

In the meantime, the calm at the outpost didn’t last very long. The soldiers started seeing shadows and hearing whispers, wailing at night and howling noises. They tried to convince themselves that it was the wind and nothing else, but deep inside they were shaking with fear, as if they knew they’d committed hubris and their nemesis couldn’t be very far. Even the newly posted troops caught the fever. They quickly learnt from the rest that things were not rosy, and shared their fears. Luckily the power generator was fixed so they didn’t have to sit at night with just the petrol lamp. They could watch TV, but occasionally the power went out suddenly, always around midnight, something they attributed to the generator overheating until Sotirakis, like the encyclopaedia of horror that he was, helpfully informed them of the significance of the witching hour.

One evening Mastre Hambís turned up with a couple of bottles of brandy and some food, only to find them in an almost deranged state. They were all sitting inside the outpost, without a guard at the gate. They were all armed to the teeth, bayonets fixed and weapons loaded, as if the supernatural could be killed with 7.62 bullets. When they heard Hambís’ voice, they calmed down, as if the old man was their link to the soil, its ghosts and saints. The old man realised that something was seriously wrong. When they recounted the story of the bones to him, he told them the old legend of the village witch. According to the legend, there used to be a witch at the village, a vile woman who always dressed in black, had a black cat and practised magic, giving people the evil eye. This woman’s father was desperately trying to get her to marry, and brought the finest princes in the land to ask for her hand, but she refused them all. She even murdered one of them, and they say he was buried around the chapel, where the trench was dug. The evil witch disappeared and is said to appear around the time of the murder, terrorising the village, although few people can say they have seen or heard her. The soldiers realised that what they’d been experiencing had something to do with this tale. Mastre Hambís was the chorus in this unfolding tragedy, filling in with crucial information inside the amphitheatre of the sun-baked landscape. 

To be continued...
Part of the Army Tales
Image from here

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Exorcism pt. I

They were all gathered inside the outpost-even Linda the dog was terrified, hidden under the TV stand. The guards did their shifts in pairs, so that they’d have someone to talk to. Patrol duties were largely neglected, not because of a mischievous streak, but as a result of The Appearance.  This was no truant dereliction of duty resulting from an urge to stay tucked in bed or hop off to the nearest town for ice cream. This was genuine fear.

It all happened when that wretched commander ordered them to dig the trenches as a punishment for not keeping the outpost free from cigarette butts and weeds. The commander, major Troullos, had been going through a particularly harsh streak recently. Punishments for unpolished boots and unbuttoned shirts had become his staple ever since that inquest into his handling of the munitions storage and a punishment coming his way from central HQ. Troullos just took it out on the lads. The trenches were dug some time in the ‘70’s, when a realistic possibility of conflict existed and made them necessary. They had since fallen into disuse and ended up being used as a rubbish tip or sometimes a cosy spot for lovers to hiding from prying eyes. When Troullos came round one morning, they were still shuffling out of bed, unshaven and scruffy. Antonís was standing there, boots unlaced and eyes half-closed, supposedly in attention but still clinging onto that last dream he was having about playing in a European final and scoring, running towards the fans with his arms aloft.

Troullos was in a foul mood. He kept yelling at them, calling them a disgrace. “If your lot was around during the war we’d all be speaking Turkish now! And you, Constantinou” he yelled in the sergeant’s face, “is this how you keep your soldiers under control? Look at them! They couldn’t fight a swarm of flies, let alone the enemy! Four days detention to all of you! Eight days to you sergeant! And look at this shit-hole, how can you idiots smoke so much? And why do you toss these cigarettes everywhere-you should be court-martialled for stupidity!” And then he just gazed at the sun-baked barley fields, frowning and thoughtful. “I think that our trenches are far from battle-ready, don’t you think?” The men said nothing, although a light grumbling and shuffling of boots could be heard. “Sergeant, hop in the jeep.”

He took Kostís to the trenches, about half a mile north of the outpost, and issued his orders: “I want all grass and weeds gone from here.” Jumping into the trench, if you could call that small ditch a trench, he said to the sergeant: “You see, Constantinou, if the enemy were to shoot at me, they could hit me anywhere from the chest up-the trenches are too shallow.” Kostís prayed for the shot there and then. “You and your men will dig them down to two meters deep”, he said with glee. Kostís gasped. “But sir, the sun is really hot and this is really hard work, how can we dig so much?” “Shame on you sergeant! If your father’s generation had said the same, we’d all be washing dishes in London now. I want it done by Monday-I’ll bring the brigadier to see your excellent work-so don’t let me down. And make sure you all look shaved and polished too, otherwise you’ll never see your homes until I retire!” It suddenly all clicked in Kostís’ mind. Troullos wanted to be in the brigadier’s good books. They had to do the digging in the August sun. It just wasn’t fair-but then again, very few things about the army were.

The regiment issued them with pickaxes, shovels and wheelbarrows. Kostís was really stressed about it, since he was explicitly responsible about this trench and knew the major would just punish him even more severely if they failed to do as he said. One problem was that Kostís’ rank was only useful to the major. The stripes did look good on his sleeve but he had no control over the soldiers-most of them were his friends from school. They were all conscripts, so rank did not matter at all. Finding himself in this tight spot, Kostís had to do more digging than anyone else, simply to save his skin. That the major asked them to extend the trench a few meters towards the chapel just made things even worse.

They started digging early in the mornings and late in the afternoons in order to avoid the worst of the sun. A couple of hours of digging either side of the hottest time of day and they would probably make the deadline. They all mostly pulled their weight, although Andreas saw this as another opportunity for a sick leave. He ‘injured his back’ during the first morning and was off for two weeks. The rest agreed to beat him to a pulp when he returned.

As Mastre Hambís drove past one morning to go to his farm, he stopped his truck and jumped off. “I wouldn’t be digging there if I were you lads” he exclaimed. “That was part of the old chapel cemetery-you don’t want to be disturbing the dead”, he added, wearing a worried frown across his forehead. “I’m afraid we’re only obeying orders Mastre”, Kostís replied. “Trust me, if it was down to us we wouldn’t even be here. “Well, I wouldn’t go around disturbing hallowed ground if I were you” insisted the old man, as he jumped back into his truck and drove off. “Stupid old man” chuckled the ever dismissive Antonís, who had just come back from helping his father with the potato harvest.

On and on they dug the sun-baked earth, their hands full of blisters from the wooden handles and scratches from the thorny bushes. Dusty, sweaty and demoralised, they shifted the earth on the outside of the trenches to create more depth and save on the digging. “Fucking trench! If there’s a war they’ll probably blast us via satellite” said Kostís in despair. “This is all pointless, the bastard just wants to torture us.” And on and on they shifted the earth, bucketfuls, wheelbarrows full of the red earth. Dead nettles and thistles, gravel, rubbish, broken cement and bricks, dumped by builders. There was even an old washing machine, rusty, with its mouth gazing at the sun. Its cause of death was that hunter had shot it for fun, the shot pellets burning a rusty galaxy of stars on its side. They  found old shotgun shells, broom handles, beer bottles, an old payphone, a doll with one leg missing, a broken tricycle, three dead rats, a couple of snake skins and a very alive viper, which shuffled away in search of a different nest. They threw all these close to the trench, but behind a pile of earth where the major wouldn’t be able to see them.

It was late on Sunday afternoon and they were almost finished with the digging, when Antonís was heard exclaiming “what the fuck?” They all stopped and looked at him-his dirty hand holding what seemed to be a branch. On closer inspection they realised it was a bone, probably a human thigh bone, as Sotirakis confirmed. They all looked at Antonís, as he let the bone roll off his hand in disgust. They all looked at each other, not sure what to make of this. Hambís’ words rang in their ears, and the hair on the back of their necks stood in attention. As the earth where Antonís was digging started crumbling, a skull rolled to his feet, its eye sockets filled with earth. Antonís screamed and jumped out of the trench, while the rest cautiously followed him. Linda kept barking at the bones from a safe distance.

“I think we’ve done enough lads” said Kostís. Gather the tools and let’s go. But almost as if a hand was pulling them away, they left everything where it was and took the path back to the outpost, speechless. Antonís, embarrassed at his display of fear, started to make fun of it all to try and lighten the mood. “Ah come on, you don’t believe old Hambís’ stories now do you? They’re only bones. People dig up bones in cemeteries every day.” But this was different-they knew it was, and as the night started to throw its dark veil over them, they were certain something was not right.

On Monday morning the major turned up with the brigadier, a rotund man with white hair and a camouflage fatigue like the ones the US marines wear, only a few sizes bigger and with a couple of pens in his breast pocket rather than weapons. They had scrubbed up really well and the outpost was spotless. The brigadier was not the kind to be messing about with-he handed out 20-day detentions at minimum, so everything was sparkling.

“Attention!” barked the sergeant, and they all looked at the sky, muscles tense, fists clenched on their sides. “I report: outpost men present eight sir!” yelled the sergeant, perhaps overzealous, as his high-pitch voice started to crack.

“At ease” croaked the brigadier, his voice gravelly from years of smoking cigars and drinking only the finest whiskey. “Major Troullos here tells me you soldiers are an example to your peers. It’s good to hear that. Remember that you are the future of this tormented country and that it is upon your shoulders to protect your homes and families from the barbaric enemy. Just like Leonidas and his thr…just like Leonidas and his three hundr…just like Leonidas and his three hundred fought the enemy at…Th…Thermopylae, so will you have to fight and sacrifice yourselves for the good of th…the nation” he pomped, waving his hand to drive away the flies swarming around his face. He hated coming out to the outposts-the dust, the smell, the pointlessness of it all. He’d sooner be back in his air-conditioned office, reading the papers while drinking his coffee. But he had to play along, as the general was on his case after recent reports of maladministration in his regiments.
“Major Troullos here” he pointed at the major who was beaming “tells me that you men have, under his enlightened leadership, restructured and expanded the trenches. This work is crucial, as this will no doubt be your own Therm…Thermopylae. Defensive work is our priority, and I urge you to carry on with your duties with the same vigour as usual. Major, let’s have a look at this trench!” The major waved at the sergeant to join them and they all entered the brigadier’s brand-new chauffeur-driven saloon car. Kostís had been dreading this. They would find the bones and the deserted tools and he could kiss goodbye any hope of seeing his family any time soon. When they reached the trench, the brigadier commented on the quality of the work, the depth of the trench and the speed with which the men finished the work. When they reached the part where the bones were found, Kostís was amazed to find that there was nothing there-no sign of the bones, and no sign of the tools. As they were heading back to the outpost, he thought that thieves must have carried the whole lot away. He would probably get the rap for the loss of the tools, but he preferred that to a scolding from the brigadier.

“Good job major-this should be an example to the other outposts. Please make sure that all trenches are up to this standard” said the brigadier, bringing a handkerchief to his nose as the whiff of a decomposing sheep from somewhere caught him as he was entering the car. The major joined him and the car disappeared back towards the air-conditioned civilisation from where it had come.

The men were baffled. They went back and looked around for the bones and tools, but found nothing. They asked Hambís if he saw anything or anyone, and Hambís’ frown appeared even deeper, his face darker than before. “I told you not to dig there didn’t I? Now you disturbed them, god knows what will happen.” That wasn’t the answer they were hoping for. They thought Hambís arrived early in the morning and took the tools away, tidying the place up as a favour. But that was simply not the case. And that’s when strange things began to happen. Guards heard wailing at night, but they couldn’t tell whether it was just the howling of the wind or something more sinister. The dog had become more uneasy, and she barked at the darkness for no obvious reason. As they were sitting around the petrol lamp at night, the dog just jumped to her feet and dashed outside to bark at something. Nobody followed her to check. One of the patrols thought they saw a light flickering at night inside the chapel-where no priest had lit a candle for centuries. They kept hearing strange, creaking noises from the roof, scratching and sometimes a noise which sounded like heavy sighing. A general feeling of fear and unease descended upon them, and they all kept thinking of the bones, the tools and the trench. Some tried to make fun of the situation in order to lighten up the mood and conceal their own fears. Some others just kept to themselves. Hambís somehow came round less frequently and looked more serious than usual.

One night the patrol came back terrified, their faces blank and white. They kept hearing heavy breathing and panting, as if a pack of dogs was following them. When they turned and looked they could see nothing. They kept walking, going faster and faster, but the panting followed them until they entered the outpost. Some nights they could hear the sound of horses galloping on the road. Nobody dared to look-there hadn’t been horses in that part of the world since the English made the railway. Linda kept barking. 

To be continued...
Part of the Army Tales
Image from here

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Roast chicken

This is a nice and simple recipe.

1 chicken, cut into pieces
1 kilo of potatoes
3-4 ripe tomatoes
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 glass of white wine
ground cinnamon

Place the chicken, potatoes, onions, tomatoes and garlic in a baking tray. Add the rosemary and wine. Top up with some water until it's all half-covered. Add salt, pepper and a light sprinkle of cinnamon, not too much as it can be a bit overpowering.

Cover with foil and cook in the oven for roughly 1 hour, perhaps a bit longer. Remove the foil and cook for another 25 minutes to allow it all to brown a bit. Serve with a lovely salad and bread. Open yourself a very cold KEO to go with it.

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Thursday, 19 August 2010

Lavoura's tale

A long time ago, long before the time of the Turks, when the Franks were ruling the land, there was a rich feudal lord by the name of Markéllos. Markéllos had a daughter, Lavoura, who was of marriage age. Lavoura was a difficult woman, hard to please and very proud, and she rejected all proposed husbands her father found for her. As she was growing older, rumours started to spread that she was a witch and no man could ever have her as she was already married to Satan. As the peasantry in the area was fascinated and terrified by the stories, Markéllos desperately tried to find her a suitable husband to take her off his hands. He brought the village priest and even the bishop to bless her and drive away all evils, but to no avail-Lavoura’s attitude became even more difficult and she appeared destined to end up a spinster.

Lavoura was not what you ‘d call a beautiful woman. Her dark complexion and curly raven hair were only matched by eyes of burning coal. She was rather eccentric and always wore funereal black-something which fuelled the witch rumours about her. However, she had an inner beauty-she was a creature of great determination, loyalty, and above all intelligence. She resented the fact that she was seen as this burden to be rid of, this liability in the household. So much so, that her father was even willing to forego the traditional gift a groom had to pay for the marriage to take place. This attracted many eligible, if penniless bachelors from the area. Markéllos’ wealth and social standing was not to be sniffed at, being married to a ‘witch’ was a small price to pay for those eager to climb the ladder.

Lavoura spent her days doing embroidery, and reading the chronicles and histories, descriptions of events and places far away. Her only friend was her milkmaid Ploumou. Together they embarked on long walks in the fields where Lavoura talked to the birds and flowers. They often went on pilgrimage to the deserted chapel of St George, hidden among the cypress trees outside the village. Ploumou was the only person who understood her, and always defended her when the villagers talked about her. She knew that Lavoura was a prisoner of her fate, her gender and her social standing. That fact increased Lavoura’s resentment towards all the hopeful grooms-to-be. These ranged from sons of well-to-do landowners who were eager to marry the wealth to wealth, to the dregs of feudal society, rogues who’d spent their little property on gambling and ambitious and foolish pirating ventures they masqueraded as crusading. These were little more than raids on hapless villagers on the Anatolian mainland, where they plundered and kidnapped with a view to ransom and handsome profits. Inevitably, their meagre profits were blown on either more foolish ventures or drinking.

One of these, Franjéskos, was determined to lay his hands on Lavoura’s dowry and the land it came accompanied with. He had had enough of the fighting life and wanted to settle down, and Lavoura’s wealth represented a golden ticket for him, one he wasn’t prepared to let get away. When Lavoura treated him with cold contempt, he wasn’t put off. He knew of her reputation but thought he’d manage to break her resistance. He tried everything, approached her with sweet caution and honey-glazed stubbornness. When that didn’t work, he played the hard man role, treated her harshly and appeared arrogant and sure of his chances with her. Lavoura came to detest him and couldn’t wait for him to lose hope and join the hordes of the other failed suitors. In vain. Franjéskos was different in that he never gave up the chase until the day he died.

Markéllos felt that Franjéskos was the one who would finally make Lavoura his wife, and so allowed him extraordinary access to his daughter. He even allowed him to join Lavoura and Ploumou in their long walks in the country, which fuelled Lavoura’s hatred even more. Franjéskos, this vile, brutish man, had managed to invade one of the few spaces where she could find calm and joy. As Franjéskos became bolder and more forward with his approaches, Lavoura became increasingly uneasy and alarmed at the unprecedented intrusion and threat.

And so it came to that fateful day before the 15th of August, when the peasants believe that unless the Virgin goes to sleep on the day of her dormation, one should be extremely mindful of accidents and carelessness. There was nothing accidental or careless about what happened that morning inside the perimeter of St George’s chapel.  Lavoura and Franjéskos were sitting on a large rock, under the cypress trees, with Ploumou at a cautious distance. Lavoura’s hatred boiled over and Franjéskos’ considerable patience finally ran out. Like two cats cornered against a wall, they began hissing and growling at each other. Lavoura, in a fit of rage, called him a vagrant and a bandit, when the violence which ran through Franjéskos’ blood began to surface, and he started waving his fist at her, calling her a witch and a hag. Lavoura had heard this once too many-the witch thing had become harder to swallow and hit her hard. She sat down with her face in her hands, weeping. Franjéskos looked at her, thinking that he was finally victorious in this battle of wills and that he had finally broken Lavoura’s pride. He immediately changed his tone, and stooped over to her with kind words, hoping that it was the coup de grâce for Lavoura’s stubbornness. He suddenly staggered back, both shocked and surprised at the pain caused by the dagger stuck in his throat. What swarms of pirates and town garrison men had failed to do, was delivered by a woman. Lavoura had thrusted the dagger so swiftly that Franjéskos could hardly react. He held the dagger from the handle, blood spurting out, and as he looked at Lavoura incredulously he opened his mouth to say something, but he instead fell flat on his face, bleeding to death.

Lavoura then disappeared. Markéllos searched everywhere for her, had his men scour the countryside and notified his contacts in the cities to look for her, but to no avail. It was as if the very ground which was soaked with Franjéskos’ blood had opened up and swallowed her, bringing her unfortunate life to an end. Markéllos could not contain his grief and the great shame the crime brought upon his name. He roamed the village streets, the fields and orchards at night, wailing and calling out her name until his legs could carry him no more and he ended up a crazed old man with no heirs.

Picture from here

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Meatballs with mash

Ingredients (for 4)

For the meatballs:
500g minced meat (beef, lamb, pork or a mixture of whatever you fancy-I used lamb for this one)
1 onion, very finely chopped
bread crumbs, about 1/2 glass (cous cous will do if you don't have bread crumbs)
a generous handful of dried mint
1 egg
1 can of tomatoes
2-3 bay leaves

For the mash:
1 kg of potatoes
1 block of fetta cheese
olive oil
Optional: chilli flakes, fresh peppers or roasted peppers

Mix well the meatball ingredients in a bowl until it's all evenly distributed. If you have time to allow the meat to absorb the flavours, even better, do it from the night before, cover with cling film and keep in the fridge. It's fine if you don't, you can make the meatballs right after mixing the ingredients.

Shape your meatballs and place them in a baking dish. Add the tomatoes from the can. I usually mix them in the blender because I like a smooth tomato juice rather than chunks. Add some water, the bay leaves and bake in 200 degrees for about 30 minutes, turning once for the bottom side to brown too.

For the mash: boil the potatoes, drain them and mash them. Add milk until you have a nice, fluffy mash. Add lots of dried oregano, the crumpled fetta cheese, some olive oil and whatever else you fancy. Don't add much salt, as the cheese can be quite salty.

Serve, enjoy.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Sotirakis the Meek

Sotirákis sat patiently waiting for his replacement. He'd been on guard duty at the detached watchtower, looking after the .50 cal since midnight, with his shift ending at six. Six long hours in this wilderness. He didn't mind though; on the contrary, he enjoyed these long stints away from the outpost and his colleagues. He had a small torch and a battered paperback copy of Christ Recrucified in his ammo pouch, and the watchtower provided the best solitude for reading.

He'd arrived at the outpost a hot August morning a couple of months earlier, fresh from training, and he soon became the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons. Sotirákis was rather simple and quiet, the kind of person who serves as a toy for the alleviation of the outpost's boredom. The hardened veterans caught wind of his manipulable nature within 2 minutes after he'd first arrived to the outpost as a new recruit. He came on the back of the regimental Land Rover and when the corporal saw him, he simply asked him who he was, more out of curiosity, as they weren't expecting anyone. "Private Sotirákis Halloumáris reporting for duty corporal sir!", Sotirákis duly reported in fully voice and standing in attention so vigorously his back was arched and he nearly fell backwards.

The corporal was hardly a 'sir', himself far from being the alpha male at the outpost, having failed the rudimentary exams for sergeants and earning the lowest rank one could possibly earn. That made Sotirákis' response even more spectacular: the oldies knew they had a 'meek' one to play with. The corporal, after he recovered from the surprise, decided to play along.
"What's your specialisation soldier?"
"Rifleman sir!"
"That's a shame soldier. We really needed you to have more specialisations than that"
"SHUT THE FUCK UP! Did I give you permission to speak?" "You only speak if I ask you a question."
"Now, as I was saying, we badly need a cook and a cleaner. Also we could do with an experienced and hardened patrol officer, do you think you can do all those things?"
Sotirákis looked at him, unsure whether to respond or wait.
"You may speak soldier" said the corporal, trying to suppress the laughter.
"I would be proud to perform these duties sir!"
"You do understand we'll have to train you-training can be hard and demanding. Are you sure you can cope?"
"You may speak soldier" repeated the corporal, rolling his eyes, incredulous at the naivety of this latest recruit.
"Of course I can cope sir" said Sotirákis firmly, while his legs started to tremble.

It didn't take long for the rest to cotton on to the fact that Sotirákis was fair game. Apart from loading him with the worst chores, cleaning, doing the washing up, doing the worst possible shifts, they played the most cruel tricks on him as well: they woke him up in a creative way every morning, ranging from buckets of water to tipping his bed over and raising the alarm. They once put a dead black snake in his bed as a joke, and Sotirákis nearly had a heart attack. If he was on guard duty when lunch arrived, they often ate everything and didn't keep any for him. They sometimes stole his personal supplies of food, drinks, soap and whatever else they liked. But he never protested, he took everything with quiet dignity, bowing his head and clearing up the mess, as if his fate had predestined him to do so.

And sometimes they just didn't turn up to relieve him off his guard shift. Like today. It was fast approaching seven and there was nobody in sight. His replacement often saw this as an opportunity to have a lie-in at Sotirákis' expense. And all he could do was sit there and wait. He was a very proper young man, to the point of suffering. His fatigue was always in order, his rifle clean, his boots polished. He shaved his young and hardly visible stubble daily-unlike some of the older soldiers.He was never late for his shift, always on time and proper. Proper, proper, proper.

He'd finished school with straight A's and already had a place in the medical school waiting for him for when all this would be over. His academic nature contributed to his being bullied, as being 'proper' and 'clever' never went down well in a world where macho posturing, boasting, breaking the rules (or saying you did) and physical prowess ruled. His quiet, reserved nature and his respect for the rules offered more ammunition to those who wanted to completely control and humiliate him. He passed as 'retarded' 'simple' 'soft' and even 'gay'. His proven academic record posed a threat to the less literate men, such as Antonís. Their insecurity made life hell for Sotirákis.

Stupid he was not. He knew that he was part of a bigger game, his place in society pre-determined. All he had to do was put up and try and belong as much as possible. He did that by laughing at the jokes, pretending he didn't mind, that he was a good sport. But inside he was burning. And he'd already started boiling that morning by the time his watch showed nine o'clock. Stavrís was due to replace him but he was nowhere to be seen. Sotirakis had been guard since midnight, he was starving and desperately needed to rest. He thought of Stavrís having a lazy morning, perhaps even being awake and sitting around with the other lads, having a cigarette and a game of backgammon. And he snapped.

When he entered the main outpost building, about half a mile from the detached watchtower, he found them drinking coffee and chatting. When they saw him they knew the game was up. Something about the death in his eyes, his demeanour, not to mention the fact that he'd done the unthinkable and abandoned his post, leaving rifle, ammo and helmet behind in his fury. Stavrís failed to read the signs. "Psaraka*, did you abandon your post? You'll get court-martialled for that" he said, his voice full of sarcasm while he was taking another sip of coffee, glancing at the rest for their reaction. Within seconds, Sotirákis had hauled him off his seat and violently planted his forehead onto his nose, dropping him onto the concrete floor in the process. Stavrís shouted and writhed, clutching his bloody face.
"And never be late replacing me again you cunt!"

Sotirákis washed himself, ate something and jumped into bed for a nap. Nobody dared to bother him until about lunch time, when the sergeant politely nudged him: "Sotiráki, come, there's some lunch for you if you want-it's OK if you don't-just have some rest, Stavrís will be doing your shift tonight".

Sotirákis was not meek any more.

*Psarakas = (lit.) fish, can be translated as 'greenhorn' or 'fucking new guy'. In Greek new recruits are called psaria, fish, because they are 'fresh'.

Part of the Army Tales series