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Nuwe skryfwerk | New writing > Fiksie | Fiction > English > Published authors

Enemy of the Republic (Part I)


Richard Jurgens - 2010-03-01

It was a brilliant afternoon, and the sky was a mirror of the intense blueness of the Aegean sea. The narrow streets of the Plaka district below the Acropolis had settled into a sun-baked torpor. Even the shadows had fled inside.

Hilton Ellis paused to wipe the sweat from his forehead. He was walking up one of the narrow streets of the district, where dank tavernas jostled with hippie boutiques and small stone houses huddled in the neon shade of hard rock nightclubs. Once, Pericles and Plato had walked these streets. Now, anno 1978, the district had been colonised by a hedonistic drug-taking generation. International tourists were swarming over the district like locusts, looking at historical sites, buying souvenirs, wanting meals.

Hilton was schlepping a bright yellow aqualung, and it was a bastard to handle in the everyday air. It bumped against his knee, it pulled cotton shirts and dresses from their stands outside the doors of boutiques, it knocked into the elbows of passers-by, causing them to curse in the ancient, fluent way of the city and project the evil eye.

The aqualung had taken him to some of the deeper places in his life. He had dived in the strange half-light of Highveld sinkholes, in the green-blue waters of the Indian Ocean, in the azure translucence of the Adriatic. Being underwater had given him access to another world: the experience of lightness, of physical grace. He was as attached to it as any object. Even so, he was tempted to dump the thing for any price he could get in a record store on the way.

He found what he was looking for on Monastiraki Street, near the bazaar. The shop was almost completely hidden by a thick wig of creeper that hung over the balcony. Above a door was a little hand-painted sign in Latin characters:

Plato's Cavern
Rare and Used Books
Abraxas Mavros prop.


Hilton hesitated at the tiny door, which had clearly been built in a time when people were shorter. Its panes were almost opaque with dust, so that nothing could be seen of the interior.

He was still dithering when the door opened to reveal the proprietor's portly figure.

"Are you going to stand there with that thing for very much longer?"

Without waiting for a reply, the old man led the way into a cellar lined to the rafters with books. At the back a door led to a little stone courtyard, which was light and airy after the cool and dusty dimness of the cavern-like shop.  

Hilton sat down on a stool at the little wrought-iron table while Mr Mavros settled into his chair and clapped his hands. A crone in black garb and head-dress appeared. She was like one of those old women, bent by time and nature, who figure in myths as silent harbingers of mortality. Mr Mavros spoke a few soft words in Greek and the crone vanished.

"Our coffee will arrive presently," he said. "Meanwhile, tell me how you have been getting on."

Hilton mumbled platitudes. Greece, home of the gods; source of democracy, philosophy, comedy, and tragedy.

"A cultural education can be useful, of course," Mr Mavros said, allowing a look of amusement to flash in his dark eyes. "But you cannot live on air."

Hilton indicated the diving kit on the floor. Mr Mavros considered the yellow aqualung with a meticulous smile. It looked as toy-like and out of place in his courtyard as a prop from the Thunderbirds

"I see," said Mr Mavros. "You are back to your trading activities. I must remind you, dear boy, of a basic truth. Your supply of things to sell will quickly dry up."

"Well," Hilton said, wondering how to frame his question. He was here only because of plan A, which wasn't his plan, after all. His plan was plan B: to sell the aqualung and get the hell out. But for the moment he had no choice. He dived in.

"Mr Mavros, I was wondering if you've had a chance to think about my suggestion. Maybe you could use some help around here. I really need a job." 

The old man considered him with curious, rock-hard eyes. 

*

Fortunately the Golden Key wasn't far, in a narrow street only a short walk down Adrianou Street. He found the place in a celebratory afterglow, with beer bottles, wine bottles, ashtrays and used hypodermics strewn about, traces of sweat, patchouli and weed still in the air, and the remnants of the party – a few long-haired hippies – murmuring to one another from large cushions or staring into space.

"You shoulda been here, man," said a young guy from one of the cushions. He was a local who went by the name of Angelo. Hilton had scored weed from him. 

"Yes, well, I've had a few things to do," Hilton said.

Angelo looked sceptically at the diving kit that Hilton was schlepping. "With that?"

Hilton dumped the aqualung, which was empty and clanked hollowly. The Zeiss underwater camera with the panoramic lens had gone a week ago, to an American hippie passing through on his way to Amsterdam. The Seiko diver's watch certified to twenty pressures (far deeper than Hilton or anyone else would ever dive) had gone a week before that, to a Swedish girl who wanted a gift for her local boyfriend.

"I'm looking for a buyer," he said. "That's why I'm here. I thought there'd be more people around."

"You wanna sell it?" the boy said, pricking up his ears. Even when he was half asleep the hustler in him was on automatic pilot.

"Yes." But the post-party somnolence in the nightclub offered little chance of a solution to Hilton's problem. His attention had been caught by the dope paraphernalia on the floor. The boy waved his hand in invitation.

Angelo was young – nineteen or twenty. He had spent the summer hanging around the nightclub, learning American and letting his hair grow. You could almost see the images flickering on the kid's mental screen. The glamour, the glory. The light that illuminated the future rock star as he traced his fiery trajectory across the sky of fame. Back in the Republic he would have been manning the counter in a fish-and-chips shop in some mining town.

Hilton and Angelo shared the large two-blader in languid silence. You smoked what you could get here in Europe, of course.

They had just finished when a sound of sirens interrupted the post-party calm. Engines roared, tyres screeched, car doors slammed, boots tramped. After a brief pause, as their overwrought synapses caught up with the situation, the hippies panicked and started piling out of the smoky room. Angelo appeared to have fallen asleep, despite the commotion.

"Hey!" said Hilton, jogging the hippie with a sandal-clad foot. "It's the cops!"

The kid opened his eyes blearily, stretched, yawned, clocked the expression on Hilton's face, and sat up in alarm.

Too late. The doors burst open and the hippies came flooding back in, closely followed by men in the blue uniforms of the Athens police, some of them toting machine guns. The cops occupied the room quickly and scoured the rest of the nightclub, a warren of rooms surrounding a dank courtyard with a stoned olive tree drooping in the middle. Out in the street, a crowd of passers-by – Greek orthodox nuns in funereal black, market-goers with baskets, students and tourists – collected in the street to eyeball the action.

Hilton had never been on the wrong side of the thin blue line before. He had never imagined that it would be so simple, so matter of fact. Being herded, processed, by a gang of armed men in uniform while a crowd looked on. Fleetingly, eerily, he felt that he had in some very strange way come home. His hand was shaking when his turn came to produce his passport. The cop, a rumpled, middle-aged fellow who looked like he appreciated a quiet siesta with a plump young lady when he could get one, merely examined the document briefly without interest and moved on.

Within a few minutes the cops had loaded their selection from the hippies, Angelo among them, into their vans and driven off, leaving the ones who remained to stare dazedly at the police convoy as it disappeared down the heat-hazy street.

"Quite something, isn't it?" said a man at Hilton's side. "We could learn a thing or two. Say what you like, these wops know how to keep order."

"It's because the generals are in power," said a man on Hilton's other side, as if this was clearly a good thing.

Emergency pyres had been sending up smoke signals from distant hilltops in Hilton's mind for some time: he'd glimpsed the gravy-stained regimental tie and the head prefect's tight haircut in the crowd. But they had been isolated details in the flurry of the raid and he hadn't registered them.

"What a surprise!" he said, projecting stagy confidence. 

"Really?" said the second man, his mouth twisting sarcastically beneath his mirrored sunglasses.

"We've been looking for you," said the first man. 

*

Only a few weeks before, Hilton had sold up everything he had to finance his trip – his cream leather sofa and Blaupunkt hi-fi stereo, his collections of records by Harvest, Pink Floyd and The Sweet, and his comic books featuring his favourite superheroes, Spider-Man and Green Lantern. He had added to his travel fund by doing a courier job, dropping off a consignment of Kruger rands and diamonds at a discrete little establishment off Bond Street in London on the way.

Back in the Republic, the regime was fighting its unwinnable war, its Vietnam, and the massive Hercules transports were bringing back streams of body bags, the unheralded statistics of an unheralded conflict. Not surprisingly, some of the young men scheduled to feed the ever-hungry war machine preferred to leave the country. Hilton had managed to evade detection for a number of years, but in the end they had tracked him down and the army letter had been officially delivered. So he'd "gone to Greece".

He'd intended to be sensible and get a job in a kitchen somewhere straight away: start a new life. But dizzied by the possession of so much cash in hand, and dazzled by the sharp Aegean light, he had binged.

He'd gone diving in the startlingly blue sea of the islands. He'd lolled on beaches in Rhodes, marvelling at lovely bodies whose culture of hedonism went back thousands of years. He'd sat on the stone porticoes of village inns, eating fish that had been brought in that day on brightly coloured boats with black-lined, strangely Egyptian-looking eyes on their prows. He had visited Delphi, the Parthenon, Knossos: names he had held in mythic awe since childhood. And he'd drunk ouzo in harbour cafés where people who looked like the models from the Stuyvesant International bioscope adverts smashed plates and joined in the dancing.   

He'd had a lot of fun and spent money like a rich boy in a Wilbur Smith novel; nothing unusual in that. Yet his departure from the Republic hadn't gone unnoticed: hard eyes had come to rest on his dossier. (And, scarily, there was a dossier with his name on it.) And now two pairs of those eyes were staring at him with frightening objectivity across a table in a dingy back room at the embassy, while the regime's incumbent prime minister looked bibulously on the scene from a grainy black-and-white photograph on the wall.

*

Several hours later the younger embassy stooge showed Hilton out by an inconspicuous back door that led on to a side alley.

"And don't get lost this time," Fuckface smirked, pushing the door closed.

A ride home wasn't offered, so Hilton was forced to hoof it. The heat was still unpleasant, though the streets of Athens were settling into the quietness of early evening under a haze of the day's smog. On some days pollution drifted over the bowl of the city to hang there like a toxic thermal blanket, turning the air trapped beneath it into a slimy soup of sun cream, exhaust fumes, sewerage and chemical effluent. But it was dinner time, and the horrors of the city air were compensated for by the scents of lamb stew, steak with rosemary and mousaka that sneaked in below the murk and drifted over the pavements as seductively as sirens. He hadn't eaten all day. A feral dog prowled in his belly. Food, meat!

His encounter with Burke and Hare, back at the embassy, had never had a snowball's, of course. The men had interrogated him aggressively about his activities, but he had been unable to satisfy them about his "progress", as they called it, and they had turned nasty. Any further failure would constitute a fuck-up and he'd be on the first flight home. A team of large and very fit red caps would be waiting to take him to detention barracks, they had assured him with terrifying moral earnestness. "Straining at the leash" was the phrase used.

"I even kind of hope you'll screw up again," the younger one had said, looking hungrily at Hilton's large, amply sweating frame. "Man, you'll go straight from Jan Smuts to Valhalla."