Just Found Beginning of Novel I Started to Write In Greece 35 Years Ago

by martinhesp

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I was looking though a big old hard disc earlier when I found a bunch of little files that wouldn’t open until I dug out an old fashioned text editor. What follows was among the files – it is the first chapter in a book that I began writing while living in Greece many years ago. It was called The Lemon Forest – because that’s where I lived, in a lemon forest.

Oddly, I have booked a holiday there in a couple of months time – so reading it again got me all excited. If people like it, perhaps I’ll put the second chapter up on the blog.

The photos are all old film reprints of the place where I lived – you can see how beautiful it is…

THE LEMON FOREST – CHAPTER 1

The room is dark and as near to cool as you can get at midday, and the hangover is made of ouzo and beer, which is as close to death as you want to be without leaving this paradise for the next. Outside the sea is void of a single ripple and from the bed I can see the village of Vathi mirrored like an upside-down dream on an upside-down mountain in a make-believe blue submarine sky. Not a wavelet bestirs itself in the great mountain-ringed Gulf of Methana. Nothing moves in the heat, save for the hosts of invisible insects that hum and twitch and scrape in the lemon groves.

Such a thing would be impossible on the wild Atlantic shores of my distant home, but here the great weight of the heat has crushed all activity. It is too heavy, too intense. The heat has a physical presence – it’s like a wall that hits you if you stir. The birds that fill these groves at dawn have gone to shaded places under the mountain. The sheep that look and act like cloven-hoofed greyhounds have found a place in some secret chasm or coombe in which they bleat quietly and bemoan the warmth of their wiry wool. Hercules, the crazy shepherd, will be grunting and dreaming of San Francisco in his open-mouthed sleep. Even the lizards are motionless in the midday sun. Apart from the endless drone of insects it is so quiet that I can hear the blood thumping through my head and remember that, sometimes – in places of savage beauty – it is easy to think of death and to understand why the people of the rocks and crags above the blue-blue sea revere their terrible gods in dark and scented temples. I wish she was here. I wish that she had not taken her bronzed, lithe, body away to the flower fields at dawn. I wish she were here making gentle love to me because slow easy sex is the one thing that could dissipate the misery of the hangover. The one thing that could take away the nervous nether-gloom of death. But she is in the gladioli fields with Louise and now they will be sitting under a big tree eating their lunch in the shade by a stream. Dangling their feet in the cold mountain water and watching the trout being still in the dark, mysterious, depths of a watercourse that once cooled a sweating Prometheus.

Wretched, distant, Prometheus who was a native of these hills. What a bloody, awful, death he managed here in paradise.

The hung-over man, lying on his hot bed in the midday heat, catches a glimpse of a kind of anxiety which he knows can grow and escalate if he isn’t careful. It’s one of the payments you make for the high of alcohol. The silent, sudden, onslaught of a panic attack.  It can catch you out here – maybe especially here, in the wild savagery of the mountains. Somehow the sense of disquiet lurks more distinctly in this ancient place than it does in the rolling green hills of my youth. The people here have killed and have been killed by their own kind, or near neighbours. Countless times. Somehow you know this killing could so easily occur again and you remember how forty five men died just up there in the gorge one morning a handful of decades ago when the people from the island down the coast came with the Germans to show them where the Communists were hiding. In the gorge beneath Ortholithy.

Ortholithy: higher than Ben Nevis – and yet so impossibly, imposingly close to the sea.

It is under the great ramparts of the mountain that we live. In the vast, natural amphitheatre, that is the hottest place in mainland Greece. That is why they grow the lemons here, because the fruit cannot survive the slightest degree of frost. Which seems, suddenly, laughable – the very word “frost” seems so utterly unfeasible in this boiling, remote, cottage by the sea. Every inch of me is naked on the white sheet, every window and door open in the hope that some waft of cool may come down from the heights of the mountain. You would think there might be some cool somewhere: the cottage is dark and everything within it escapes the sun, and yet there is only a vague mental image that it might be cool. It is an image that you must possess to bear the heat.

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At last, after a half-slumber, there is something else to contemplate. It is Napoleon. I can hear his car miles which must be away as it begins to climb the road out of the village. I know it’s his Citroen DX because the engine has a strange fluted note to it that is unique. No other vehicle on the peninsula sounds like Napoleon’s, just like no other has the throaty resonance of the V4 in my old Saab.

Napoleon. Only he would move when the world was still. It is my theory that he is not a man but some throwback, modified from the lizards that once ruled this world. No person I have seen on three continents has been more profoundly reptilian in countenance or in motion than Napoleon. And yet the analogy should not be allowed to rest upon the profile of a lizard alone, for Napoleon is as shark-like as he is gecko. He is a human shark. You can see it in his dead eyes, in his long, long nose. In his appetite. Even the car he drives has shark inherent in its long sleek lines.

I know it is Napoleon, not only because of the engine tone, but because of the gear-changes. They are double-de-clutched and fast. Napoleon only drives at one speed, and that is fast. The drone increases and then ebbs as he enters a coombe or rounds a bluff. Each time the distant sound swells or dies I can imagine him taking the fast racing-line through the bends. Balancing the car with consummate ease as it lurches on that tottering, French suspension around the hairpins. One day Napoleon will die on that mountain road. They will find his DX smashed a thousand feet beneath and his ubiquitous leather jacket will be black with blood and his family will place a shrine on the corner and put his photograph behind a little glass door and flowers in front and his mother will light an oil lamp every backbreaking, arthritic, night and the people on the bus will cross themselves as they pass. You can only hope Napoleon will choose a bend near the village so that the old mother will not have so far to walk. He would never die if he drove the mountain road sober, but often he is drunk. And then he is too fast and one day he will get it wrong up there.

He is going up and down through the gear changes as the DX climbs the mountain, and I know the road so well that I can guess exactly which bend he is rounding every time he drops to third. Napoleon is going to Gato Fenari to play cards. Or maybe he’ll drive right on up to Anno Fenari at the top of the pass. Little Anno Fenari with the best view in Greece. It will be the one place on the whole of the Argolis peninsula that is cool this lunchtime. There will even be a little movement; goats grazing up among the crags, and above them there may be an eagle soaring. Napoleon’s cold dead eyes might see the creatures, but whether the existence of the moving things will matter to him, I doubt. He seems to care only for sex and cards – not necessarily in that order. He will play canasta until evening and he will probably win more than he loses, for those eyes of his never give much away. None of the old men of the villages will play with him, only the young blades for whom the lizard-man is something of a legend. He has been all over the world on ships and no longer needs to work in the lemon forest or with his hands in the high mountain nut groves, or with the nets on the sea. Napoleon owns the only four-wheeled vehicle on the peninsula that is not a pick-up truck, and not my Saab.

At this time of day the people in the villages around the Gulf are asleep, or motionless, in places where there is shade and breeze. Save for the card players, and they go about their sport with hardly a perceptible movement. If you were in Gato or Anno Fenari now, one halfway up and the other at the top of the mountain, you would hear their voices, rising and dipping like the roar of small waves upon shingle. Their slow, unhurried, game will continue through the afternoon in the big, empty, concrete taverna. Because of the concrete and the bare, windowless, walls there is always a brittle quality to the sound of the tavernas or kafeneons. It is harsh, and yet comforting, and it always smells of the cheap toasted tobacco of Keralia cigarettes.

Napoleon’s French engine ceases its distant whine so I know he must have turned into Gato, the lower of the two Fenaris. I can imagine his big white car sliding into the steep narrow streets and stopping in the little central square to sink slowly on its wheezing, hydraulic suspension. Like a shark falling to sleep in a reef.

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