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When was the last time I wore something sexy just for me or for someone I really loved and not for a customer?
Paraskevi was deep in thought as she stared dreamily out of the taverna’s kitchen window, only half concentrating on her thoughts, the other half of her mind watching the holidaying couples promenading hand in hand along Harbour Street. The couples, or at least the women, had all made an effort in their looks and it didn’t matter to Paraskevi whether they’d done it for themselves or for their lover or for the public at large. These were people that looked into each other’s eyes as they spoke, all annoyingly appearing to be in love, or at the very least, happy.
In fact, when was the last time I wore anything that wasn’t black and white. White shirt blouse (one of thirty that I own), tight and short black skirt and black, flat ballet pumps. If I wore anything different people that I know would walk straight past me without recognising me. All of these couples look as if they could be staring into each other’s eyes on the cover of one of my books.
Out in the narrow street that cut through between her kitchen watching post and the taverna’s seating area next to the harbour, her husband Pedro was staring hungrily at the legs of a woman older than him, hoping that his flirting would be recognised and appreciated. The supposed act was real for Pedro, his wife was aware and it made her laugh pathetically and she didn’t care about him but carried on her dreaming.
Tourists tell me that my taverna is lovely, that my island is beautiful and say that I am so lucky to live here. They don’t see me struggle to make a living. They don’t see what life is like behind our building’s doors once they are closed.
Paraskevi was used to the feeling of becoming overtired and depressed near the end of a long hard summer season and knew it was a time to become jealous of those enjoying a late holiday or even a holiday romance, but this year felt even more depressing.
When the tourists left her little island, which they would soon, they would take their modernity with them, leaving, thank God, the invention of the mobile phone and television behind as their only useful gifts (she didn’t regard the computer to be in this list). The island would then openly return to the ancient attitudes of their ancestors. They were ancient ways that would include the old fashioned thinking that underlined old attitudes through the winter and that hid behind Greek doors through the summer. At least though, Paraskevi would be able to get through the day without cooking and serving over an eighteen hour shift for seven days a week.
Dominated by a father and then by a husband, I sometimes hate being a woman. What contribution does Pedro think he makes to our living? Running in the cool of the nights, sleeping in the mornings, offering menus in the afternoon and evening, he doesn’t have to do much to survive. One of my nieces could do just as well as him. I should have left him on his own island instead of falling in love with him, bringing him back here and emasculating him. Everything I do goes wrong.
Angry with her husband today for a very specific reason her anger increased when she saw Pedro’s captured couple directed to the eating area and then left to fend for themselves. Pedro was now back at his post and back to the thumbing of his mobile phone which was always locked if she tried to look at it, which had become more and more frequently of late.
The knife and fork in her hand, gripped in anger, couldn’t have been held any tighter, not that anyone would have realised if they’d looked at Paraskevi’s smiling face. She’d watched as the woman with the legs chose a table under the plastic roof but right next to the drop into the harbour while her husband hovered waiting for her to sit. With this couple the woman was in charge, Paraskevi decided, and she’d been trained to notice who was in charge as soon as anyone entered the stage that was her taverna.
It varied with non-Greek couples, sometimes the man was in charge and bossy as if he was Greek but with this couple she watched as the woman pointed to the harbour as if to instruct her husband that they were going to enjoy a view of the prettily coloured Greek fishing boats, bobbing on the water as the bright colours receded into the dusk as they ate.
This woman is in charge and will pay. She doesn’t seem the type to give her money to the man to pay, as some couples do.
This view while eating was apparently important to this female customer, eating for the sake of it was more important to her husband. If they had been a local couple the man would have pointed to a table and the woman would have obeyed, sometimes daring to grumble a little, just for the sake of it.
Paraskevi walked towards the couple without having to concentrate on hitting anything and obtaining bruised thighs because as she moved through the wooden tables and blue-painted chairs she knew they hadn’t changed position in years. Every gram of tension and anger in her body was concentrated into that one hand grip holding the cutlery, the grip that was beginning to stiffen her bicep and make it ache. The knife scraped against the fork inside the tightly folded serviette that held the two handles neatly together and it mirrored the scraping of the sinews of her wrist against her carpal tunnel that was her ever present pain. It was a sacrifice brought on by the lifelong peeling and cutting of vegetables but something that was accepted by women all over her Greek island as being part of running a taverna. It was a pain too expensive to rectify with surgery and was the least of her worries at that moment. Some pains were acceptable to women, others were not.
Paraskevi, the number one fan of the Greek language, afternoon soap drama ‘Diana’ was living out a fantasy in her head and, far too easily, imagined the knife in her hand penetrating the skin of her husband’s hairy belly as he came to stand beside her at their customer’s table in case he’d done something wrong. She was sure that his blood would flow freely over the concrete floor in the warm evening air that was extending the holiday season on their island but she also knew that the camera would not show the flow of blood in detail during an afternoon entertainment.
No doubt the blood would become sticky overnight, hard to clean up in the morning. It would be left to me, as usual, to clean up after him and would probably leave a stain that would have to be covered over by moving tables. I can never win. His shirt would be ruined and would need to be thrown out, a waste of a good white shirt. Then there would be a problem for Jaco the holiday policeman. He can just about deal with quieting down noisy bars but there is no crime on my island as such and he wouldn’t, as a holiday policeman, be able to cope with a murder. I don’t want to put him in that situation, he’s too cute and that moustache of his is too cuddly.
Paraskevi imagined the surprised look on Pedro’s dying face, the zoomed-in close up of the look of his absolute shock and she felt only slightly guilty about relishing the image in her head. There had always been slight irritations of the things that her husband did, as there were in any marriage but, at this moment in time, everything he did or said irritated her - his mere presence irritated her.
A wasted two years of my life of cooking and cleaning with no reward. The poor man has had two years of emasculation and taking it out on me, taking it badly. I am to blame for what he is and for what he does and I have no time to do anything about it. His carefree life on his own island has been turned into the life of a servant boy working in my taverna. His virility that he was so proud of has been destroyed by me being on the pill but, thank God, he doesn’t know that or he’d kill me.
Pedro, with all the flourish of a bull fighter, placed a fresh paper tablecloth on the new diner’s table and he performed his act as if all was well with the world. He let the paper fall slowly through the air, between the couple and in a diamond shape so that the corners of the paper cut into the sides of the table. Without speaking he fixed a plastic clip on each table side to hold the paper down. On the female guests side of the table the clip and his hand were centimetres from her lap as he stared again at her legs, tight together this time and turned slightly away from him in a defensive posture. As she held her handbag and camera in the air with one hand to aid the ceremony of the laying of the table she placed her thin white cardigan over her legs with the other hand and cringed slightly when Pedro smiled into her face.
Pedro wasn’t really interested in her legs, he decided. His flirting look that she’d noticed and enjoyed as he’d studied those legs when the couple had walked towards his taverna had done the job for him and they were now captive customers. Her legs were good for her age, shapely and tanned enough to warrant a shorter than normal skirt, he guessed, but they held no further interest for him as his mind readily turned back to the youthfulness of Alexia in the main port and especially to the fitness of the gym-monkey Cassia at the other end of the island. He wanted to get back to his working post, to try and entice customers into the taverna and to resume the concentration that was required to carry out his two simultaneous text conversations without slipping up.
There was no wind and no great humidity either but Pedro was aware that the clear air of the pretty Greek harbour setting was prone to evening breezes this late in the season. He hadn’t yet had to pull the see-through plastic walls around the eating area but it could easily and quickly be completed at a moment’s notice if required to be a comfort to his diners. He was the one that would make that decision. His brilliant idea, brought from his own island, of the removable plastic walls, under the fixed roof, had been a good investment two years ago and had already paid for itself by extending their season while other open-to-the-elements, tavernas with no roofs or walls had already closed until the following spring.
Paraskevi had good English, her husband had none, so she was able to hold a conversation with her first guests of the evening who she knew, from listening to them, were British. The cutlery was emptied onto the newly placed paper cloth and positioned as she smiled and spoke. “Your cutlery and complimentary basket of bread sir and madam, my husband has your menus. Would you like a soft drink or will you choose from the wine list this evening?” Her smile was accompanied by a tone of voice that said ‘this evening’ to the couple as if they were remembered and treasured return guests, even though she didn’t recognise them. It was a totally false tone of voice that was given to every holidaying couple that dined in her taverna and much appreciated if they were, in fact, a returning couple.
Her smile was as false as it usually was, pushed through not only the usual tiredness but through her new found anger also, the anger that had been boiling up after what she’d learnt that day from her gossiping friend.
She knew that the acting was generally poor in Diana and knew that her act of smiling and pleasant talk would be more believable to her small audience of two as it had been rehearsed from her childhood and the patter had been used practically every night throughout the many summer seasons of her life. Her anger had to be bottled up for now and could not be seen in public as the customers were vital to her end of year profits.
Without the couple noticing she removed the serviette that had been moulded to the shape of her fingers, from the cutlery and replaced it with a serviette from the ancient, plastic holder on their table and then placed the newly wrapped cutlery in the holder in case it was needed for later. Hers was not the type of establishment where guests were asked to keep their used starters cutlery for their main course and she was proud of that fact. She managed a glimpse at the used serviette and marvelled at the sweat marked finger pictures that were impressed on the paper before pushing it into a skirt pocket.
The woman of the holidaying couple decided that they should be left at their table on the harbour edge to read their menu, to choose their food and only then to decide on a wine that would match the meal. It was an evening meal table that they were familiar with from a previous lunchtime and the woman dropped small pieces of her free bread into the harbour in the hope that her personal shoal of small fish that she’d befriended at that lunch was still down there in the darkness somewhere. Her cardigan was lifted and placed over her shoulders, the threat of Pedro having disappeared, but deep down she was still thankful that she’d been admired by a much younger man. She felt contented in her situation as she studied intensely the woman acting out a role in front of her.
I was worried about my skirt length, much shorter than I would wear at home but nowhere near as short as that of our waitress. My tanned legs were admired by that young man and that boosted my confidence no end. I still wouldn’t wear this length to the office, mutton dressed as lamb and all that, but tonight will be stored in my memory bank. I love the holiday freedom of having nothing to think about and being able to people watch.
It seemed to the woman that the evidence all around her from her week on the island was that it was the most relaxed spot on earth with seemingly no worries about crime or violence and it was an island where everything happened slowly. It was an island of love where even her husband’s love making had slowed down to a more passionate level, admittedly more to do with the heat than the passion.
Pedro left the orderly dining tables and chairs and headed towards the kitchen area but stopped midway on the journey to stand again on the small road that separated the eating area from the kitchen. Picking up the pile of plastic book-like cases he’d left on his table he started again to offer his menus to the few couples promenading through the warmth of the September evening and he thumbed his phone when nobody was approaching.
Paraskevi ignored her husband as she passed him and carried on across the road to their house and its ground floor commercial kitchen, angry that her husband had not offered a jug of water to their only customers; angry that he did as little as possible to keep their business going.
The two girls helping in the kitchen, daughters of two different cousins to Paraskevi but classed as nieces, knew that they would, within the next couple of weeks, be told that there was no more work for them. Soon they would return home to their own villages to spend the winter and to spend what remained of the money collected through shared tips earned through the summer months. Their wages were paid directly to their parents to keep those families going but the girls had free accommodation, all of their meals supplied and the tips that the woman that they called their Auntie Para made sure they received in sufficient amount for them to be able to enjoy their free mornings with their friends.
The most important element in working for their auntie, as far as the girls were concerned, was the fact that they were away from the dominance of their fathers and could wear clothes like the tourists wore without being called slags who should cover themselves up for the sake of decency.
Paraskevi looked at the girls and smiled with nostalgia. She could still easily remember what it was like to live on tips alone and made sure that her nieces didn’t go without and made sure that the girls enjoyed a freedom that she’d been denied at their age. Their fathers, farmers and goat herds, insist that the girls cover up. My father was closer to the tourists and insisted that my boobs be on display and that my pants were shown when I bent over. No wonder my head is mixed up. I could wear long skirts and high tops if I wanted to, now that my parents have gone, but choose not to. Now it’s a case of making money through repeat customers and leaning towards husbands as they pay. Funny that usually the wife is the boss but the husband pays.
The nieces were fifteen and sixteen and had giggled when they’d first discovered and then discussed with each other the fact that Pedro had come-on to each of them individually and been rejected by both of them. Neither of them realised that Paraskevi too was fully aware of the fact and recognised the signs as the girls manipulated themselves to never be alone with her brute of a husband. She’d dismissed it and that anger had left her quickly. The girls were young and attractive and so it was obvious that any Greek husband would give them a try. Hopefully, having been rejected, he would keep his hands to himself and not touch them or annoy them. Paraskevi had made it plain to the girls that their employment was to her and that Pedro had no power over them. She thought back to when she’d been their age. She tried to remember the fun she’d had with other teenagers in the free-time mornings and how revolted she would have been at such an advance from what must appear to her nieces to be a really old man in his thirties.
It seemed a long time ago that Paraskevi had friends. It was back in the time when her parents were alive and running the taverna and Para was looked on as an only waitress rather than as an only child. Since her parent’s deaths she’d been so busy running the taverna herself and trying to keep her marriage together that contact with others outside her concentrated life was fleeting.
Her only outlet for general life and relationships was her addiction to her soap opera. It was a television soap opera where life seemed to be normal and without major incident and yet the characters had a life far more interesting than her own and none of them cooked and served all day until they found themselves sleeping and then repeating day after day. In fact an owner of a café in the soap appeared to do no work all day other than speak to customers and spread gossip. Importantly for Paraskevi, it was also a programme that could be watched on the kitchen TV while working.
The jug was filled with tap water, she added a few lemon slices, freshly cut and from her own lemon tree and then added some ice before exiting the kitchen. As she stepped out of the kitchen door she imagined the cameras picking her up again as she entered the scene. Walking passed her husband, back into the seating area, her practiced smile reformed itself as she placed the water jug on the table and gave the couple their glasses to drink the water from. She took their order in pencil on a small pad and as she walked back towards the kitchen, she shouted over a rehearsed line to Pedro in Greek. “You are not doing too well tonight Pedro, only one couple so far. You are losing your sexual magnetism I think. Have you lost your harpoon that you used to catch female tourist women with?” It was said with the attention of annoying him.
The British woman diner smiled, not at Para’s Greek comment that she didn’t understand but because she could see a piece of bread, white and just visible in the gloom below her, vibrating with the presumed nibbling of tiny fish. She was also observant enough to sense the tension between the man and woman who were her hosts, something that went straight over the head of her husband who started eating his bread to show how hungry he was as his wife contemplated the situation in front of her.
I wonder what life is like behind closed doors on this island, whether it’s all love and happiness as its portrayed everywhere or whether there are tensions that we’re not allowed to see within this male dominated society. There are bound to be tensions in all relationships, even on idyllic little islands but the tension between the sweet girl serving us and her lazy husband is obvious. It feels like stepping back in history to a time when women were ruled by lazy men who made their women their slaves and sexual objects. Does he make her dress that revealingly I wonder? Does it excite him and give him a sense of power to see that male customers stare at her legs and breasts but only he can have her? My husband gets an eyeful of breast every time she comes to our table and it seems to wake him up. My guess is it will make him frisky tonight. I also guess that if I said I thought she had too many buttons undone he’d say he hadn’t noticed.
The meals required were quickly relayed to the two young nieces with extra instructions on the exact order in which the food would be required, indicating to them that the diners were non-Greek and would require a starter, then a break, and then their main course and strictly in that order.
The girls set to work on the food that had been cooking for most of the day through the effort and work rate of Paraskevi, an effort that she’d put in since the breakfast that had been taken by the temporary family of four. The girls were aware of Pedro as soon as he walked into the kitchen because he started screaming in Greek before the door had fully closed behind him and they had to try and pretend that they couldn’t hear his loud voice and somehow pretend that they weren’t even there in the same room as him or that his voice hadn’t been heard outside the kitchen as the door seemed to close too slowly. Meal preparation for the nieces took on added concentration.
“Don’t you ever humiliate me like that in public, telling me I’ve lost my magnetism in front of everybody.” He was almost spitting as the words came out and Para knew that he was being stupid and that ‘everybody’ was two non-Greek speaking diners who hadn’t understood her but had probably heard his anger through the open door as he’d entered the kitchen. He was starting an argument for the sake of it and not for the first time in their marriage. The youngsters raised their eyebrows at each other but made sure that it was done out of his view.
Para ignored the tirade for a few seconds, imagining that her script indicated a pause for effect and she calmly carried on cutting bread from a long stick loaf, in case another basket was needed for fresh customers. She half looked up at his stomach.
This argument was needed which is why I provoked it. I think this long bread knife could enter his belly and come out the other side if I pushed hard enough and managed to avoid any bones. My pause for effect is allowing a zoom in to a close up on my face to see my calm reaction to his ranting. He is out of control.
She looked up to speak calmly, relishing the fact that this argument was not in their bedroom where she could be easily overpowered by his muscle, as was usually the case, and that she had witnesses in the room and the girls weren’t just over-hearing his shouting from their own bedroom as they usually did. She looked up from the bread.
“Me humiliate you?” She stopped cutting, gathered the loose breadcrumbs in one hand and brushed them into a bin with her other hand thankful for the opening presented to her. It was lucky, she thought, that she was positioned so that the central kitchen table was between the two of them. Lucky that she could not receive another slap from an angry husband, lucky that he could not receive her bread knife which she now held again, upright in her right hand in full defensive view.
“Your dumb-arse donkey of a girlfriend in the main port told her friend not to tell anyone about the necklace you bought for her last week out of our precious money. That friend told her mother not to tell anyone and that mother told her friend, who happens to live in my village, not to tell anyone. Of course that friend in my village enjoyed telling me and God knows who else just how indiscreet you are by not being able to keep your dick in your pants outside your own home. You ask me not to humiliate you?”
The bread knife came down heavily on the bread board at the word “dick” as if there was a picture in Paraskevi’s head. Now that the facts were out in the open they seemed very real to her and she knew that if he flew at her to punch her and he received the bread knife in his belly then her nieces would testify that it was self defence.
Pedro did not fly at her and did not stay to defend himself. He arrogantly didn’t imagine it was necessary. Instead he turned and walked out, mumbling under his breath as his arms twirled about his head and the two nieces closed their astonished mouths and could hear Pedro’s words that indicated Paraskevi’s insanity, paranoia and crazy imagination and the fact that men were more sexually driven than tired out wives. The two girls looked at each other with wide eyes dominating their fresh skinned faces, smiling at their insight into married life, both of them having heard the rumours that Alexia was probably the girl being talked about and was the girl that lived in the main port and had, what had been called in conversations with their friends, a bit of a reputation.
In Paraskevi’s head she heard the music that accompanied the closing credits of Diana and decided that it was a good place to end things and wait to see if anything developed. Perhaps it would continue on the following day, in a script that she was yet to read. Pedro’s lack of a denial proved to her that she’d lost her husband but that was a fact that was already known to her and only needed confirming. She hoped that he would go for a run and not try and reestablish his authority over his wife in the bedroom that night. During arguments with Pedro sex was sometimes a punishment dished out to her rather than the gentle love making that she’d experienced from him while holidaying on his island. It was often described by him as her failing to perform her wifely duties and him having to make her.
Looking up at the blank television screen above the door of the kitchen she ached for the next episode of the soap that was her only form of communication, the programme that spoke to her more than her husband did, the programme that gave her a window into the outside world away from the twenty four hours of her taverna. She was well aware that her sad life, through the holiday season, consisted of waking, cooking, serving, watching Diana, serving, cleaning and sleeping again but was also aware that Diana was not real life and that she was not really part of the cast but she had to keep reminding herself of that fact.
Para had the feeling that her husband had disappeared for the night, not an unusual occurrence, but this time she’d shocked him so much that he hadn’t been able to deliver his usual boring line, delivered at the end of every argument, the line that told her that she’d made him so angry that he was forced to go out for a run and it was all her fault that he wouldn’t be with her until morning.
Eventually Paraskevi broke the deathly silence in the kitchen. “Is the first course ready girls?” She smiled at them without having to say that, in her opinion, what they had witnessed was a small victory for Greek women as well as a personal victory. “I assume that you’re both mature enough now to keep your auntie’s problems within this room?” She was going to be humiliated enough through gossip in this small village that had ignored centuries of progress and where gossiping tongues would discuss her inability to keep her husband in check, her inability to satisfy him and the fact that he now needed to wander.
My guess is that he will not return tonight and I will be alone in bed yet again. If I can read to empty my brain of our argument I will try to fall asleep thinking of Pedro having an affair with Jaco’s wife, whatever her name is, leaving Jaco to love me tenderly but masterfully, perhaps in his uniform. Lately, he’s been growing his horseshoe moustache longer and the bushier it gets the more I fantasise about his head between my legs instead of my finger being there. All will be well as long as these things stay in my head and I am trying, despite the annoyance of Pedro.