The Captive Sun: Extract

Prologue

The day on which the stranger appeared in the village was a snapping, spitting day in March; the sort of day on which men were wont to grouse about their arthritis and gout and to bicker with everyone in their household before heading down to the kapheneion, where they could, for a time, forget all their troubles. It was 1935 and only the devil could have masterminded the current state of the economy. This was the one thing everyone seemed to agree on.

Despite the belligerent weather, all the regulars were there when the gypsy turned up: playing cards or backgammon, gossiping over drinks. Philippas Adham, the headmaster, sat discussing Hitler’s denunciation of the Treaty of Locarno with his friend, the doctor. He had just ordered coffee and was about to light a cigarette when the gypsy tramped in, tailed by two scruffy boys with shoes so large they had to be half-dragged across the threshold. The stranger looked slatternly but imperious, closing the door behind her with a decisive toss of wet plaits. She wore a colourful skirt and a faded green sweater; a small crimson scarf was tied around her neck, as beguiling as a poppy in a field of thorns.

‘Good afternoon.’ The gypsy stood peering through the haze of smoke, a bale of tablecloths draped over her arm. ‘Good afternoon, gentlemen!’

The greeting was grudgingly returned by a handful of men; others went on staring at the stranger with mute interest. She was an attractive woman with nutmeg-hued skin and a beauty spot on her left cheekbone. The children had found a vacant table and sat with their bare legs dangling, staring at the rain. It was growing dark.

‘Look here, gentlemen! I’ve got tablecloths – fine tablecloths all the way from Athens.’ The gypsy plucked off the protective oilcloth and cast it aside. ‘I invite your offers!’ She stood surveying the room: the men toying with their worry beads, the blazing pot-bellied stove. The fire crackled and hissed, spitting out an occasional spark. One of the lamps on the wall flickered, running out of oil.

‘Do I hear an offer?’ The question was cast over to the right, where Mimis Lyras, the village wit and football champion, sat bantering at the fishermen’s table. One of the few fair-haired men in the village, Mimis was idly picking his teeth, staring appraisingly as the gypsy danced her way towards his table.

‘How ’bout you, sir? I bet your wife could use a nice tablecloth for thirty drachmas, eh?’

Mimis took a lazy drag on his cigarette, gazing at the stranger. ‘What’s your name?’ he asked, his tongue testing his inner cheek.

‘Amalia. Amalia the fortune-teller’s what they call me.’

‘Well,’ said Mimis, his eyes full upon her. ‘Look here, Amalia. I’d gladly pay thirty drachmas – maybe even sixty – but the God’s truth is I don’t have a woman.’

‘What?! A handsome palikari like you!’ The gypsy cackled. ‘You pay me sixty drachmas, sir, and I’ll find you two wives for your money!’ She winked, flinging back her plaits, while Mimis’s companions guffawed and Hektor the fool hooted in the background. Someone called out, demanding a coffee reading. Only the kapheneion owner appeared impassive, slowly stirring beans in a steaming cauldron.

‘Your own wives couldn’t match this with their nimble fingers!’ the gypsy was saying. Someone – the doctor or the headmaster – had ordered a plate of beans for the rawboned boys. The kapheneion owner’s father-in-law set the plates down with a sour look. The men had all but abandoned their games; the shop, entitled to ten per cent of all winnings, was beginning to lose money.

‘All right: only twenty-three drachmas and your fortune free!’ The gypsy stood warming her hands at the wood stove, scanning the crowded room.

‘I’ll tell you what!’ she cried at last. ‘I’ll read one man’s fortune, one man’s only, then —’ She paused dramatically. ‘If he wants – if he wants – he can buy one of these lovely tablecloths. How’s that?’

The question was aimed at one of the fishermen, who’d recently lost two fingers while fishing with dynamite.

‘Why … why don’t you try the Alexiou brothers here?’ The gnome-like man made a flustered gesture, then buried his maimed hand in his lap. ‘They’ve got money to burn, those two. I … I’m just a poor fisherman,’ he stammered.

The Alexiou brothers were seated in the corner, lingering over their coffee. The gypsy glanced over her shoulder, then made her way towards them, her teeth flashing.

‘Don’t be afraid … there’s nothing to be afraid of.’ She pulled out a chair and sat down, theatrically overturning one of the coffee cups. The cup belonged to Iason Alexiou, the village merchant’s middle son. He was in his mid-twenties, with sparkling blue eyes and the sleek, tender skin of a pampered adolescent.

The fortune-teller studied Iason’s features, waiting for his coffee dregs to settle. The rain was still falling but its fury had gradually been exhausted. At the back of the room, Hektor the fool swatted a fly, snickering to himself.

‘Well!’ exclaimed the gypsy, wagging her head. ‘This is a fine – an excellent – cup. Excellent!’ she repeated, her eyes sweeping the surrounding men, as if every one of them stood to benefit from her pronouncements.

‘You don’t say.’ Iason half-smiled, fumbling for his pack of cigarettes. He seemed about to add something, but his older brother stopped him.

‘We’ve already got us a fortune-teller in this village!’ he tossed out, his pugnacious jaw pulsing. Anyway, I’m sure you’ll do better with the women – much better,’ he reiterated.

‘He’s right,’ said Iason. ‘Our women, they give us nothing but pocket money for a drink or two.’ He paused, eyes round with mock innocence. ‘What? You don’t believe me?’

The gypsy let out a hoarse little laugh. ‘And what would you know about it, my friend? I don’t believe you’re even married yet, are you?’

The merchant’s son smiled, but did not contradict her.

‘He’s looking for a wife, is Iason!’ screeched Hektor. He squinted towards Iason’s table, tittered, then clamped his hand over his mouth, like an irrepressible child during Sunday Mass.

‘Is that so?’ The gypsy shifted her attention to the coffee-smeared cup, tilting it this way and that, intent on its spotty motifs. Iason remained silent, but the village wit muttered something that made the fishermen howl with laughter. One of them rose to leave, slapping Iason’s shoulder in passing. The rain had ceased, but the wind went on gusting in the thickening dark. Soon, the headmaster and the doctor also paid and left, the headmaster trudging uphill, the doctor heading down. Dr Dhaniel was not a regular at the kapheneion, but had darted in after being caught in the downpour.

‘Well,’ the gypsy was saying, ‘every man needs a wife. You don’t need Amalia to tell you that.’ She spoke in a husky, seductive voice, smiling deeply into Iason’s eyes. ‘But you, my friend – you are destined to marry the girl of your dreams!’

‘In the dark, every woman’s a dream,’ Mimis put in.

The men laughed again, but the gypsy remained unfazed. ‘In the dark, maybe. But this man … this man shall have a truly beautiful girl! The most beautiful girl any of you have seen!’ she pronounced, glowing with satisfaction.

‘Ca-Cal-liope!’ screamed Hektor the fool. He jumped out of his chair like a jack-in-a-box, scratching at his crotch. ‘She … she’s the most … the most beau-ti-ful girl in the whole wide world! She’s got di-di-dimples!’

Calliope Adham was the headmaster’s daughter, still unspoken for at the age of twenty.

‘As for that, I can’t say.’ The gypsy shrugged, glancing up as the kapheneion owner came to refill the guttering lamp. The two young boys had finished their beans and were rolling soft, leftover bread into little pellets.

‘So!’ said the gypsy with abrupt resolve. ‘Will any of you gentlemen be buying a new tablecloth for Easter? We’ll make it only twenty drachmas, since the women hold the purse strings here. What d’you say?’ She turned and winked at Iason.

‘Well, let’s see now.’ Iason leaned in to examine the hem on one of the tablecloths. ‘All right, I’ll take three of them,’ he finally said, reaching into his pocket.

‘He … he’s gonna sell them in … in the pantopoleion!’ shrilled Hektor. ‘He —’

‘Ach, shut up, Hektor!’ Iason’s brother swore, but before Hektor could summon a retort, the kapheneion owner told the gypsy it was time to go.

‘It’s stopped raining,’ Rozakis pointed out, gesturing with his chin. He had a heavy chin and a long nose, but his most striking feature was a kidney-shaped birthmark on his left temple. He beckoned the gypsy boys over, offering peppermints. ‘Anyway, this is no place for a woman with young children.’

‘Ach, you’re right there!’ conceded the gypsy, rising. ‘Perfectly right, my friend.’ She stood gazing into Rozakis’s eyes, as if mesmerised by something in their weary depths. Suddenly, she reached out and lightly touched his birthmark. ‘But how ’bout you, sir?’ she said, as tender-voiced as a mother. ‘Might you want to know something ’bout your own future?’

Rozakis just looked at her, stolid and impassive in his smoke-blurred kingdom.

‘Time tells the end of a story, lady.’