In the sixties, the nights were quiet.
You could hear
A nightingale in someone’s apricot tree
Three blocks away,
The sound of Mother’s body turning
Towards the open balcony door,
The words of some foreign language
Murmured in her sleep,
A lone mosquito’s vigil by your shoulder,
The steady beat of your own heart
Ticking like a sonar instrument
From the depths of elsewhere,
And then the scream
Of transcontinental trains
Crossing the river valley,
For the morning explosion
Of Aegean light.
Occasionally, a composition
Shuddered to a halt at the level crossing
Next to Grandmother’s allotment,
As if startled
By the tidy trellises of runner beans.
Their tiny scarlet flowers
Shining in the night
Like magic beads.
Then the glow worms of burning tobacco
Floated slowly up to the carriage windows,
Their arrival signalled
By no more than a flick of a lighter, or
The striking of a match, like a falling star
Illuminating for a moment
The pale moons of faces looking out
Towards the lone row of weeping willows.
The unseen river glinted at the bottom of the field.
Exotic names pulsated
On white panes
Nailed to the heavy doors:
Paris Gare de L’Est, Hamburg Altona, Moskva, Wien.
Funnelling through Belgrade
To Istanbul and Athens
The veins and arteries of railway lines
Looked like a map of the Nile lost and found:
The fertile delta in the north,
The white of Athens,
The blue of Istanbul,
A rare lotus flower
With a stem planted in my bloodstream.
In dreams, I sometimes revisit Salonika
Where I haven’t been for thirty years.
In nineteen eighty,
Soon after my eighteenth birthday,
Father took me there by train to buy a fur coat,
An unseasonal purchase in high summer.
Somewhere after Mitrovitsa
A barefoot girl
Walked the length of the train
Carrying a bunch of blood-red peonies,
Their buds still
Tight, unopened, unreal –
Like jawbreaker sweets,
The green plush of their leaves
Wrapped and hidden in wet newspaper.
She looked inside each compartment.
It was unclear whether she was selling the flowers
Or singing quietly to herself –
Do not lean out of the window
To the tune of an old Macedonian song.
She jumped off the train when it slowed down
Just before the border
Dropping her flowers, trailing behind her
A long, shiny stole of laughter
Like her rows of milk teeth.
At Idomeni the heat struck
With its fist in a soft suede glove
And followed us into Salonika
Where whole streets of furriers awaited
Even out of season,
Rabbit, fox, Russian sable, Arctic wolf.
Eventually, I chose a mink coat
The colour of chestnut honey,
God knows how many souls’ worth of pelt
Stitched in a garment
To be worn no more
Than once or twice in the coming years,
And now remembered mainly as a parent’s indulgence
Of the vanity of his human cub.
I soon moved to England where the rain is cruel
In its punishment of unnecessary ornament,
And, anyway, by that stage I felt more virtuous
When less ostentatious,
As if born
Into the Protestant preference
For black and white.
I saw the purchase for what it was,
Or what I thought it was.
Yet of all my sins it still remains so small
As to seem, even now, barely worth the memory.
That afternoon we went to the cemetery at Zeytinlik.
We walked among the cypresses and war graves;
Father talked about the islands of Vido and Corfu,
The sea burials of soldiers who had never seen the sea,
About typhus, jaundice, and malaria,
About perilous mountain crossings
Through freshly driven Albanian snow,
Makeshift hospitals with Scottish volunteer nurses,
Red-haired, porcelain skinned, like the north itself.
I twirled a big, shiny parcel by its silk ribbon bow,
Dreaming of snow, of icy paths,
Of deep lakes frozen in birch forests,
Of sledges drawn by three white horses,
Of manes and silver bells.
I never listened to his stories,
Yet how come
That I now remember them all?
The coat was mothballed then sold at a loss
After I left for England, and
When it became clear that I wasn’t coming back.
What I remember best
Is the early evening on an empty train
Heading back from Salonika
Through the deepest orange sunset
I have ever seen.
The amber pelt spread over my bare knees
Reflected the dying sun
As though I was on a sledge
In some Turgenieff story
In St Petersburg, or Baden Baden,
Anywhere but in Macedonia in thirty six degrees
Of pure joy
A cloud, shaped like an angel,
Its underbelly brushed red,
Hovered by our side like a tethered balloon,
As if listening to my father’s story
Soaking in the strings of his words,
More thirstily than I was,
While I dreamt under my cover
Worth six months’ of family pay-cheques.
Untouched himself by any thirst for luxury,
Father spoke of Salonika
In the First World War.
We did not talk about the Second,
Nor dreamed that there was another one
To come in our lifetime.
I never questioned the reason for that silence.
Long before I left for England I well understood
That to be able to bear so much history
One needs a circle of clear blue water
Between yourself and it,
A circle of clear blue water.
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