The Old Men (The Sporades 1979)

Outside the Kafenion around a small table, they sit playing ‘catch us if you can’

with their memories. The talk is of days gone by, a girl called Maria, sons… and letters from America. They tell of fast cars, tall buildings and endless space; cities that reach up to the sky. The island knows nothing of this… and anyway, only Christos can read; and who believes him? Old men with old memories, sat dozing and filling their days with idle talk and chequers. Life on the Island has changed, the fish no longer come, not the big ones; only the foreigners come now. Day trips round the Island for drunken young men, girls in clothes more suited to bedrooms than boats. They feel like beggars, holding out their hands for the new money.

Yannis brings more coffee, his apron stained with yesterday’s lunch. The smell of the thick black sweet brew fills the air, holding them in their seats. Where else would they go, it’s too early for the ferry from Volos. Mikalis, eighty- six next birthday, oldest of the group, wipes a hand across his moustache, stained by years of sea and cigarettes…

“Another game?”

Conversation turns back to Maria, gone for twenty years; returning with children and an American husband. New blood mixed with old, new money and new ideas.

‘A hotel with a swimming pool? Why… when the sea is all around?’

The rattle of the chequers, the click of the beads; the murmur of voices from the past.

At the harbour Maria sits waiting for the ferry from Volos, bringing she hopes, her guests for the coming fortnight. The travel company have promised much, but its early days and bookings are slim. David her husband, an academic and writer, told her the Island was perfect for him. He has great faith in her energy and ability. She still worries. As the ferry rounds the curve of the bay she prepares her smile while beckoning Dimitris to open the doors to the people carrier.

The old men have walked down to the harbour and occupied their usual seats under the plane tree. They watch with interest the comings and goings around the Ferry. It’s a daily game for them, and today was change over day for the tourists. They discuss at length each person as they disembark; trying to guess the nationality is a favourite. Tomorrow morning they would load some of them into their boats, and deliver them to beaches; returning at five o’clock to collect them. It was all that was left to them… better than nothing.

Maria stands, smile in place; her name board held up. A young couple wave and walk towards her; another older couple join them. Just the four this trip, it was the same last week; and they had left on the early morning boat for Skiathos. She keeps her thoughts to herself; but knows it isn’t enough.

Out of the corner of her eye… another couple left standing on the dock; back-packs beside them. Waving to Dimitris to load the cases into the carrier she walks over and introduces herself.

“You are English…yes? If you are looking I have rooms”

She hopes they haven’t booked anywhere… and is rewarded with hesitant smiles.

“No commitment… just come and see. I have clean rooms… and a swimming pool! You will love it…I can take you now if you wish…just to look?”

The old men laugh, “You have to admire her” Says Christos.

“Yes, she’s a one off all right, we should all be so lucky to have a wife like her; no need to fish for tourists….Maria will do it for you!”

They laugh with Mikalis, each thinking… she would keep a man warm at night too.

The talk turns to the Germans, they are back, this time with wives instead of guns. They are renovating houses in Hora, the old town sat on top of the Island; in ruins since the Earthquake in the 60’s. The Germans are taking it over …something had to be done before they own the Island.

“I think they are doing good, if it brings more people, then it brings more money; what could be wrong with that?”

“Yes! Yes! Yes! Vasilis… We know, and we know why you say it, with your son working in Hamburg what else would you say. You forget what they did to our country, how many died trying to keep them out. Now you want to welcome them with open arms, sell them our Island cheap; just to get some money in your pocket?…blood money I call it”.

“I forget nothing Giorgos, I was there too; it is you who are forgetting. We fought the fathers and grandfathers…should the sons pay for their fathers sins? And what about the Italians…would you kick out the Italian women?

The group break into more Laughter and the mood lightens. Maria hears the raised voices as she waits for the last of the bags to be loaded, she knows only too well the resistance to change; the resentment building her Hotel has caused.

“You are the last of the past” she shouts over to them… “It’s time to move on” laughing as she said it. They wave their hands in mock consternation, laughing with her. She sees their eyes run over her…not so old after all she thinks.

The ferry sounds its horn, time to move on up the Island chain; Skyros waits. For the men of the sea it is all the same, load and unload. A wave of the hand and they are gone. The hustle and bustle leaves with them. The Island falls back to sleep.


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