Saturday, September 17, 2016


“I need to change my will,” the old man said, his eyes glistening. “I’ve just come from Thymio’s funeral.
In my experience, there is nothing like the loss of a friend to make one consider, not only mortality, but also the legal practicalities of life’s leave-taking.

“What do you want to change?” I asked, pretentious fountain pen at the ready.
“I want you to draft my will so that my properties won’t go to my son and daughter if they don’t give me a proper Orthodox funeral. If they bury me like a pig in a sack, as we say, they get nothing.” He tapped his fingers on the desk as if to drive home the point: “Nothing.”

“This is a problem,” I replied. “You have gifted all your properties to your kids seven years ago so that you could receive the pension. A gift is a gift. Your properties no longer belong to you and you no longer have any say in how they are disposed of.”

The old man frowned, his lips trembling: “Rubbish, they are mine. I still pay the mortgages. I don’t want to be thrown onto a fire like a barbeque. I struggled for those kids. I made sacrifices. I am entitled to some dignity. Not like poor Thymio.”

“What happened to Thymio?” I asked.

“Weren’t you at the funeral?”

I didn’t learn of Thymio’s passing until the day of his funeral and thus could not attend it. He was the only octogenarian that I have ever called by his first name, simply because he was too refined, too glamorous to be addressed as “barba” or “theio,” like the other elderly gents of our local community. With his sensitive, feline eyes, his aquiline nose and his immense height, he exuded the cosmopolitan air of the true Alexandrine.

On a weekly basis, I would run into him at our local shopping strip, impeccably dressed in suit and tie, choosing fruit with the distracted tragic air of a Byronic hero. Upon entering his field of vision, he would emit great yawps of triumph: “It’s Σερ Ουίλκινσον!” he would cry and promptly commence quoting verse after verse of Cavafy’s poem “A Byzantine Nobleman in Exile Composing Verses”: “The frivolous can call me frivolous. I’ve always been most punctilious about important things. And I insist that no one knows better than I do the Holy Fathers, or the Scriptures, or the Canons of the Councils.”

Apparently, as he once explained to a bystander, I was as phlegmatic and emotionless as an Englishman with a title, hence my sobriquet, and he should know, for in Alexandria, he had known plenty.

During Holy Week, Thymio was never in church like the rest of us. Instead, we would find him, walking down the main street, holding the service book of the Great and Holy Week in his hand, weeping ecstatically. “Behold, the bridegroom is coming,” he would proclaim, as I walked past him, shoving the service book under my nose: “Today he who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon a Tree/ He who is King of the Angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns./ He who wraps the heaven in clouds is wrapped in mocking purple./ He who freed Adam in the Jordan receives a blow on the face.” Grasping the lapel of my jacket for emphasis, he would cry: “Such poetry, such a language! In all of the seven languages I know, no other can convey sweet sorrow in such a poignant way. We even have a word for it, χαρμολύπη. What beauty there is in sadness.”

The local Greek old men, hardened by adversity and age, would shake their heads in incredulity. “What is he raving about now?” one would ask. “If you ask me, he is a poofter,” another would respond. “Have you seen his garden? It’s overgrown with weeds. He is completely useless. Can’t even grow a tomato. His brain is only good for talking rubbish.” Taking me aside, they would advise: “Son, stay away from that man. He is not like us – he doesn’t come from a village and understands nothing about life. There is nothing you can learn from him. If you hang around him, you will get a bad name.”

"Scum, all of these Alexandrians, scum," another would pronounce, meticulously divesting his ear of wax with the overgrown nail of his little finger. "They all became foremen and ratted on the workers for the bosses because they spoke English. Class traitors all of them."

Nonetheless, even they were in awe of Thymio, because as they told me, he was an architect. it was common knowledge that all architects were Freemasons and as a result had powerful and malevolent connections. "Keep away, son, keep away," they enjoined.

Yet how could I stay away from someone who, upon one’s approach to his home, could hear him on the back verandah singing in his rich baritone, Mozart’s Aria from the Marriage of Figaro? “Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso, notte e giorno d'intorno girando…” Or remove myself from someone who had autographed copies of first editions of the works of famous modern Greek poets and musicians stacked casually upon stacks upon stacks of books, LP’s and periodicals lining the walls of his study, all the while threatening to topple onto his desk, as regaled me with apocryphal stories about their erotic proclivities?

Thymio would push away the authentic Ancient Egyptian shabtis lined up fastidiously on his desk as he selected a disc and placed it on the gramophone. Invariably, the voice of Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum would emerge, saturating the room in its musk. Thymios, eyes closed, seated in his armchair in a dressing gown, would stroke his goatee and be transported: “Kollina, Kollina fi ilhobi sawa wilhawa, ah minno ilhawa Ilhawa, ah minno Ilhawa, ah minno Ilhawa, aaah minno Ilhawa…” he would croon.

“Shut up dad, I need to practice,” a boyish voice coming from the next room would interpose itself upon his cadences, and the sound of an oboe would begin to seep through under the door.

“All of us, all of us are in love all together, and passion, ahhh from the passion, ahhh from the passion, ahhh from the passion,” Thymios would translate, chortling at his attempts to transpose his faultless English to the rhythm of Oum Kalthoum’s Arabic.
«Πήγαινε να κόψεις το χορτάρι έξω που έχει φυτρώσει ως το μπόι σου και άσε τους έρωτες,» κυρά Θύμιαινα, would cut in abruptly, mop and bucket perennially in hand, accompanied by an unchanging angry expression.

“Alf Layla W Layla,” Thymios would exclaim, “One thousand and one nights, or one thousand and one years with this woman. But what a woman she was in Iskenderiya! What a woman! Χαρμολύπη σκέτη!”
“Go and cut the grass Thymio!” κυρά Θύμιανα’s voice would achieve a shrill scream, of an intensity that Munch would be hard pressed to emulate, and I would know it was time my visit was ended. As I would walk away, I would cock my ear, so I could hear Thymio chant, as he attempted, always unsuccessfully to start the mower, the ninth ode of the Akathist Hymn: «Άπας γηγενής, σκιρτάτω τω πνεύματι λαμπαδουχούμενος· πανηγυριζέτω δε...» (“Let every mortal born on earth with festive lamps in hand, in spirit leap for joy.”)
The vicissitudes of life somehow found a way to interpose themselves between Thymio and I in the years that followed. No longer present at the fruit shop, it was rumoured among the local old ladies, that his wife had thrown him out of the house, among the local old men that he had found a Vietnamese gay lover and had moved to South Yarra, and among others, that his reclusive wife had died, he had become afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and had been placed by his children, unable, or unwilling to tend to him in his illness, in care.
“You don’t understand,” the old man shattered my revierie. “Do you know what they did? They burnt him. Like a pile of wood. No priests, no chanting. Πήγε άψαλτος. Even puppies get a better burial. And then his shameless children, who should have been strangled at birth, went to a restaurant with their friends. Apparently this is what they do now. Go to a restaurant and eat, and remember the dead and then they sang his favourite song.”
“What was it?” I asked. 
«Ξέρω εγώ;» he responded. “Something called Amazing Greece. Doesn’t even make sense, he was from Alexandria.” 
“You probably mean Amazing Grace,” I corrected him, vainly attempting to stifle a chuckle.
“Are you mocking?” the old man snarled. “I won’t be made fun of. Not by you, nor my kids. I don’t want to go like that. Write in the will that I want a proper funeral so I can meet my maker like σαν κύριος, όχι σαν γυφτο-αιγύπτιος. I won’t be farewelled with lattes and chardonnay. I want my people to cry over me in my grave. If they don’t give me that respect, they lose everything.”
“Look,” I assumed my most emollient air. “I’m not making fun of you. But you need to know that it is you who have nothing, having given them everything. Unfortunately, you are in no position to dictate terms.”
“And this is funny?”

“No, I wasn’t laughing at you. I was just thinking how ill fitting Amazing Grace is for Thymio. Now, if I could have it my way, at my funeral, as my pagan children throw logs upon my pyre and my soul begins to smoulder, I would ask the Lord to bring Thymios back solely to sing me away with the Non più andrai Aria he so loved: “You shall frolic no more, lustful butterfly, Day and night flitting to and fro; Disturbing ladies in their sleep/ Little Narcissus, Adonis of love.” I shrugged. “Maybe then it would be somewhat bearable.”

«E, τέτοιος μαλάκας σαν κι αυτόν είσαι κι εσύ,» the old man spat and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him, twice, for emphasis.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 17 September 2016