I first visited Greece in 1975 during my return to Oxford from Dar es Salaam via Cairo and Athens. A few weeks after I left Cairo, an Arab-Israeli War broke out. Mere days after I departed Athens a military coup d’état set up a right-wing dictatorship.
In Athens in 1975 I was scowled at as a druggy barbarian American hippy due to my beard which was perfectly normal attire among British bwanas in East Africa—maybe I should also have worn shorts and shoved a half-smoked pipe down my white sock? Yet wait! Did Athenians perhaps see me as an imperialist from the Britain of Lord Elgin who stole the marbles from the Parthenon (marbles which Emperor Napoleon for his part hoped to put on show in the Louvre)?
Thus I left it until the following century to revisit Athens—only to find the city explosive with youth raging at economic crisis in the wake of phantom prosperity signalled by the Olympic Games of 2004. A vast 130 Million Euro museum within a stone’s throw of the Acropolis now awaited the return of Elgin’s booty, some day.
And that day may come very soon! (Or not.) Greece hopes to finesse the suicidal exit of Brexitland from the EU into a return of those marbles.
Gentle reader, for guidance to the Elgin affair I present a story which I wrote back in 2009. As regards where to put those marbles if restored, I shall reveal in due course that a giant museum is unnecessary… My viewpoint character of 2009 is an Anglo-Saxon newspaper person whom I treat with excessive sympathy and empathy. Nowadays I would toss my Nigel by the nose into the Brexit Channel.
Illustrations within the story depict Lord Elgin, before he lost his nose due to syphilis—and the authentic horse head which he pulls—as well as the exact place where Elgin drags his cursèd burden.
Story length: 7,840 words. Pour yourself some wine, amethyst and tipsy as the sea.
A NOSE FOR SUCH THINGS
by Ian Watson
(copyright (c) Ian Watson 2011)
First on the head of him who did this deed
My curse shall light—on him and all his seed…
– Lord Byron, “The Curse of Minerva”
When I was a kid, my grandmother told me, “You have Lord Elgin’s nose.”
She showed me a photo of a portrait of a gent dressed in a frock coat with velvety cuffs and lapels buttoned once over a much-buttoned waistcoat; plus knee breeches, stockings, and buckled shoes. His right hand rested upon the hilt of a scabbarded sword. His other hand, braced against his waist, held a cockaded hat. His curled powdered hair might or mightn’t have been a wig. His nose looked long and refined. Like mine.
Gran meant, of course, that I’d inherited his nose even though a dozen generations had passed since that particular Lord Elgin’s day and despite our own family not being remotely noble; my dad was a long distance truck driver. That we were very remotely connected was a point of pride to my gran due to the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, which she took me to see one birthday. “A glory, saved by your ancestor!” she proclaimed while I took in a muscular naked one-armed man kneeing a one-armed centaur. Apparently Elgin had rescued the figures and friezes from barbaric neglect in Greece a couple of hundred years earlier.
At the time I wasn’t much wowed by those old stones, but when I was sixteen, since I was showing an interest in journalism as a career, my parents started taking the quality Sunday Times as well as their regular News of the World full of crimes and scandals; and one Sunday I noticed a picture of that very same centaur in combat underneath the headline GREEKS DEMAND RETURN OF PARTHENON MARBLES. The accompanying story gave me a rather different insight into Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, as a vandalistic plunderer.
Briefly, in 1799 Elgin managed to become British ambassador to Constantinople, where the Sultan ruled over a Turkish empire which still included Greece. This was at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Thwarting Napoleon’s ambitions in Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean was the goal of Elgin’s diplomacy, in which he was successful, however his real obsession was to bring back ancient Greek masterpieces of sculptury to London to uplift English cultural life…
Nowadays indeed I’m a freelance journalist; and a few weeks ago editor Max Falconer phoned to say, “Nigel, will you fly to Greece for us pronto with a photographer? Reuters say there’s some sort of bizarre ghost haunting Athens.”
“Makes a change from students rioting,” I said to show that I was at least semi-informed about my destination. Oddly, I’d never visited Greece before. Or maybe not so oddly in view of my ancestor’s misdemeanours. Not that I bore the name Elgin, nor Bruce for that matter; I was a Johnson. Admittedly Nigel is an anagram of Elgin, and I suspect Gran had something to do with that.
“You mean,” said Max, “this ghost business might be a stunt to take people’s minds off politics?”
“That would be a story in itself,” I hastened to say, not wishing to put him off funding a jaunt to Greece. Max’s paper has a penchant for reportage about weird phenomena such as crop circles or panthers loose in the English countryside, but a political scandal was also fair game, especially if it cast a bad light on our European Union friends.
“A stunt,” he said. “You have a nose for such things.”
Getting back to the matter of Lord Elgin’s nose, which Gran claimed I possessed, it was only when I was sixteen and bothered to find out more about Elgin that I discovered he had actually lost his nose. His nose had rotted off in Constantinople. Allegedly this was due to a ‘severe ague’. Normally in that era an ague meant an acute malarial type of fever, yet such couldn’t be so in this case unless a mosquito infected with some variation upon flesh-eating Ebola virus had stung him upon the noble proboscis, and the virus restricted itself to eating that organ alone. Lord Byron, who hated Elgin, declared that the nose-rot was due to syphilis, which seems plausible. This could explain Lady Elgin’s later detestation of her husband on more than merely aesthetic grounds. As for Lady Elgin’s subsequent enthusiastic adultery with a certain R.J. Fergusson, maybe miraculously his Lordship had failed to infect her or else the pair cared not a hoot for the pox.
When I learned about Elgin’s missing nose, for a while I became like a child who naively misunderstands what an adult – in this case, my gran – meant. At the ripe age of sixteen I was wondering whether Gran supposed that Elgin’s lost nose had somehow migrated from his face to mine?
“What does this ghost look like?” I asked Max.
“Someone pulling something, with strange things flying around. It’s fairly bright but vague. Sort of out of focus.”
Like an incompetent holographic projection?
“This all started during some excavations. Maybe something got disturbed or released.”
Some vapour such as swamp gas, responsible for will-o’-the-wisps? But I didn’t wish to deter Max.
“Sounds very spooky,” I said.
“You can cover any riots as well,” said Max. “Our Phil will sort out flights and hotel and email you.”
That same evening I flew Aegean from Heathrow to Athens along with Phil Pursey, photographer, who’d been to Athens the previous year to cover troubles caused by disaffected young people. Six months ago Phil and I had done a feature on a haunted bedroom in a castle in Lancashire, along with a couple of psychic investigators; and indeed that place had given us the shivers when the temperature dropped unaccountably. A couple of the photos showed a strange person-sized glow which Phil insisted couldn’t be a reflection of flash or a technical malfunction. This made a double page spread.
“I’ve asked a useful local chap to meet us first thing tomorrow,” Phil told me once we were in the air. “Name of Mehmet.”
“Mehmet doesn’t sound much like a Greek name.”
“No, he’s Turkish. He’s lived in Athens for years. Has a couple of carpet shops. He keeps his ear to the ground.”
“I thought you looked at carpets and walked on them, not listened to them.”
“I mean figuratively. Mehmet was rather useful to me and Johnny during the riots.” Johnny specialised in Euronews. “More objective than a Greek informant might have been.”
I had my doubts about this. “I thought Turks and Greeks didn’t get on.”
But Phil waved this aside. The inflight movie was some thriller which I ignored while I boned up on Athens using my palmtop. After we landed at two in the morning we took a transfer bus from the airport numerous miles to a square in the centre of town, very near which, Phil assured me, would be our hotel. Rather than a taxi to get there. “If we’re modest with some expenses,” he suggested, “maybe we can paint the town red one night without Max grousing.”
It did prove a very short haul from bus stop to hotel, so maybe Phil was right about Mehmet too. And the hotel was quite close to where those spooky things were happening, in the Ancient Agora, the marketplace of long ago; but by then it was well after three in the morning and I was bleary-eyed.
Mehmet was a bearded, jolly chap, tubby though muscular. He wore a thick knitted sweater under his jacket and a wool hat; the start of December was distinctly cool of a morning and would be chilly by night, but Phil and I had brought adequate coats.
While we were in the air the previous night, another manifestation had happened! Useful Mehmet brought with him copies of a Greek tabloid called Espresso picturing a jumbled glow upon a stretch of ancient roadway, amidst darkness; and Athens News in English showed a few hundred spectators gaping or taking pictures through a line of police. A long Greek title which meant Free Press carried on its front a picture of protesting young people, but inside was a similar photo of the glow along with a map of the site, an arrow showing the direction in which the glow travelled, and commentary that was all Greek to me, though Mehmet summarised. All was still a mystery. Athens News and Eleftherosomething said that scientists planned to set up special measuring equipment.
Mehmet led us by way of narrow streets full of mostly elegant souvenir shops, then passing over a railway, to the modern entrance gate of the Ancient Agora which was blocked by a couple of police cars, its ticket office shut. In the middle distance on our left stretched a long pillared classical arcade where I imagined Socrates holding forth, although the building looked rather fresh and unblemished.
“The stoa of Attalos,” said Mehmet. “A restoration.”
Trees and shrubs interrupted some of the view of an ancient stony roadway to the right of the stoa sloping up towards…
“But where’s the Parthenon?” I asked. I’d so expected to see it! The great mass of the Acropolis rock to the rear, steep and broad, did house two or three minor temples, but…
“Parthenon is on far side of Acropolis,” explained Mehmet. “That there,” indicating the broken roadway, “is where ghost travels. Panathenaic Way. In ancient times used for a procession to honour goddess Athena, taking new cloak for her statue inside Parthenon. Big festival every four years.”
“We’d have a better view from up top,” observed Phil.
“Up is temporarily closed,” said Mehmet. “Ghost-watchers might fall off the rock.”
We withdrew for coffee to a nearby restaurant, open to the air under awnings. Already sunshine was warming the morning; just a few fleecy clouds in the cobalt sky. A road-train like a huge red toy trundled tourists past. First we were bothered by a swarthy old gypsy woman toting embroidery, then by a little girl who could have been her great-granddaughter equipped with a desultory accordion, then by a black guy selling watches; all of whom Mehmet saw off while we were talking.
“I wonder,” Phil said to Mehmet, “if we can rent an upstairs room somewhere along here for tonight to take photos, so we have a better view? Assuming the ghost shows up again. Do you think fifty Euros would be reasonable to offer?”
“Hmm,” mused Mehmet. “Agora is archeology site. Might even be classed as museum. For sites and museums, Press persons need special permits.”
“We wouldn’t be inside the Agora.”
“You are not needing foreign press accreditation from Public Relations Directorate because you are not based in Greece, but it issues the special permits you would need.”
“Using telephoto from a private room…”
Mehmet grinned. “Better if you can be inside with the ghost!”
Just then a couple of official-looking white vans came past us down the narrow street, to turn towards the Agora, and Mehmet jumped up.
“I know a face! Come, come!”
Those vans belonged to the National Technical University, and Mehmet knew a Professor Zygourakis as well as, for a bonus, an accompanying Ministry of the Interior and Public Order woman called Anastassiades. Upshot: there would be a cordoned viewing area inside the Agora for TV and press and interested parties, in which we’d now be included.
Since so far the spooky phenomenon had only appeared by night, Phil and I could turn our daytime attention to the rebellion by young people, anarchists, and radicals. Its base was the Exarchia district a bit north-east of Athens University, though it seemed that trouble easily spilled further, resulting in lots of broken shop windows, stones versus tear gas, and intermittent closures of the center of town.
We took a subway, gleaming heritage of the 2004 Olympic Games, then walked a while as Phil and Mehmet held forth about youth unemployment, anti-capitalism, anti-globalisation, rage at government and the economy, hatred of the police, and a 15-year-old schoolboy martyr called Alex who’d been shot dead a couple of years back, perhaps accidentally, perhaps not.
After a bit I said, “Mrs Anastasia from Public Order – ”
“Anastassiades,” Mehmet corrected me.
“Her being at the Agora… well, if the so-called ghost obligingly causes enough of a sensation…”
“You think this is being manipulated?” asked Phil.
“It’s convenient. Anniversary of the martyr’s death.”
“These protesters are stupid, stupid!” broke in Mehmet. “Why wreck innocent shopkeepers’ windows, and even burn shops and cars? What good does that do to anyone?”
Of course Mehmet had his carpet business to worry about.
Presently we were passing groups of police at the ready, and before long we came to the martyr’s shrine in a street daubed with graffiti and postered with declarations. The street had been renamed after him by activists. Bunches of flowers and pot plants were piled, along with outstretched football scarves, empty beer cans, candles and scrawled tributes. Young people thronged the roadway, many of them hooded, others dressed like Palestinians. Armed riot police with visors down, wearing gasmasks, bunched nearby clutching shields. Mehmet translated some slogans.
“That one says Kill the Cops. And there’s We Won’t Go Away. Fight the State. Oh, and: Buy till you die! There is no right to shop. Idiots.”
Several more maturely dressed onlookers appeared respectful.
“Those are communists,” said Mehmet.
A young, scarfed woman in a black tracksuit was animatedly addressing a group of her contemporaries, while constantly pushing her long dark rebel hair aside from a chubby face. She paused to stare at Phil who, apart from his professional-looking camera with which he was taking pictures, stood out, being tall and skinny with ginger curls and very blue eyes. Me, I was chunkier, my brown thatch close-cropped. Abruptly she strode over.
“Are you foreign journalists?” she asked in excellent English.
“British,” I said. “May I interview you?”
She squinted at Mehmet with a degree of suspicion, as though he might be an official minder, but Mehmet rattled off some explanation in Greek, and she relaxed.
“I could use a beer,” she said. “My name’s Eleni. Nothing will happen yet. If it does, the people organise themselves spontaneously. I just tell my boyfriend.” She darted away to a surly-looking hooded fellow with pocked cheeks, a long nose and an attempt at a moustache, who evidently was very much under her sway since she returned to us on her own almost immediately. I noticed how ski goggles nestled within the ample scarf Eleni wore and made the connection: protections against tear-gas. Her black trainers would be for speed if needed.
Eleni led us quickly through several streets, which looked as though a minor running battle had taken place, till on a bigger thoroughfare she hustled us inside a rather posh pub that seemed to have migrated from Germany or Belgium, judging by the veritable exhibition of glass and stoneware drinking vessels on many shelves. Beer Academy, the place was called, and it boasted a redoubtable beer menu several pages long.
Mehmet excused himself. He had business; he’d phone about meeting up later. Anyway, he was probably Moslem and immune to the delights of beer.
Presently we were all sampling a delicious strong Trappist ale, and a great platter was arriving laden with various sorts of German sausages, sauerkraut, sliced radicchio, and mustards.
“Gosh,” remarked Phil, “there’s enough here to feed an army.”
Eleni unzipped the top of her tracksuit, revealing several newspapers. Worn for added warmth or to blunt the impact of rubber bullets if any got fired?
“What we don’t eat,” she said, “I shall wrap up and take back.”
So Phil and I, or rather Max, would be providing a snack for the youth troops.
“I take it this place is immune from left-wing kristallnacht,” Phil murmured to me. In Exarchia we’d seen fancy bistros and sexy lingerie boutiques as well as walls sprayed with anarchist symbols. By and large it was bigger shops downtown that had their windows smashed.
I put my little recorder on the table.
“You want to know about our rebellion,” said Eleni while munching some frankfurter. “It’ll be an insurrection nationwide if the police kill another one of us…”
Presently I happened to mention that what brought us here initially was the ‘ghost of Athens’, and Eleni flared up.
“That is a distraction from the struggle! The Greek civil war has never truly stopped, and now we have a farce of failed greedy capitalism using television as a brain-deadening control mechanism. Last night a panel of idiot experts argues about the ghost instead of asking why half the women who leave high school are jobless. Can this stupid ghost happening right now be a coincidence?”
“Maybe I’ll find out tonight when the scientists do tests in the Agora.” I cut some wurst while it was still hot and dipped it in a sweet mustard.
For the next few minutes it was as if Eleni was interviewing me. Tests? Tonight? Witnessed by specially admitted TV and journalists…?
“A media circus,” she said, “to blind gullible viewers and readers to reality. An alternative to silly girls dancing in their underwear: paranormal rubbish.”
We ate. We got on with the interview. Alex the martyr. The evil of consumerism. The vicious police. The absence of genuine individual rights.
“Greece,” I said, “seems stuck in a kind of 1968 time-warp when Red Brigades and Baader-Meinhofs were all the rage.”
“No,” said Eleni, “we have taken over the baton in the contest for freedom and dignity.”
Presently she wrapped up the unconsumed sausages and sauerkraut in a newspaper, tucked this inside her tracksuit, and departed.
“Not much wrong with the police,” said Mehmet later. “If you go for assistance, they are helpful and polite. Hysteria about police is due to previous dictatorship under the Colonels. Someone must keep order against mindless anarchy.”
After the interview with Eleni, Phil and I had gone back to our hotel to catch some sleep since we might be up till the early hours of the morning ghost-spotting. Mehmet collected us at six and led us to his favourite place for doner kebab, a meal fit for heroes, he joked, since that’s what the name of the meal sounded like in Greek; it was certainly large enough for Hercules. That was near Monastiraki Station – I was getting my bearings! – from which it was only a few minutes’ walk to the Agora. Phil apologized to Mehmet about keeping him out at night in the chill, but Mehmet wasn’t going to miss a manifestation.
So, by 9 p.m., we ourselves and at least three hundred others including TV crews, journalists, scientists, government people and a score of police were in the huge Agora in a large cordoned area parallel to the Panathenaic Way.
Garden lights, specially installed, softly illuminated the ground which was quite irregular due to stones of antiquity. No floodlights lit the Acropolis, the better for us to see what might transpire by the faint light of a sickle-moon now risen.
I sought an opinion from Mrs Anastassiades – must get her name right.
“This is so well organised,” I said. “Almost as if you can guarantee something’s going to happen. What if we stand here all night and nothing does?”
“Of course we cannot guarantee anything, Mr Johnson! We have no idea of the cause.”
In one respect she was to be proved right almost immediately in a way that neither she nor presumably her colleagues had foreseen…
Out of the darkness and scattered bushes to the right, hundreds more people began to emerge, taking up chants. Torches flared – the sort with flames. Flickering firelight revealed a converging army of young people in hooded balaclavas, crash helmets, Arab-style keffiyehs, football scarves and masks, the rebels against society from Exarchia and probably others besides.
“It’s a pitch invasion!” exclaimed Phil delightedly as he snapped photos.
In the vanguard I recognized Eleni, brandishing a pole with a flag which she swung to and fro to reveal… ah, the word started with A so it might be the name ALEX in Greek; or maybe the A was for Anarchy.
Sirens started up in the direction of Monastiraki. More police were hurrying into the Agora to reinforce the score of officers already with us, who were deploying to form a line to protect our flimsy corral. Mrs Anastasia was jabbering into a phone. Could there be five hundred protesters bearing down on us by now? They must have infiltrated the wooded extremes of the extensive Agora by cutting through whatever fences or maybe scaling those using ladders. A policeman panicked and fired several pistol shots over the heads of the oncoming mob… which began to howl vengefully, as though this was the provocation they desired. Photo-journalists and TV people were colliding with one another in their eagerness to capture what was happening, knocking over garden lights, while scientists protected their monitoring apparatus.
Of a sudden a bundle of radiant brightness appeared upon the Panathenaic Way. For a few seconds this dazzled unidentifiably – and I felt a strange electricity surge through my body, not a shock exactly but the kind of sensation as when your teeth accidentally bite on some tinfoil, only much multiplied and throughout the whole of me. “Ouch, did you feel that, Phil?” “Feel what?” Next moment, the brightness came into clear focus.
A man made of light, clad in rags of some bygone noble-looking apparel, was toiling wearily up the ancient roadway, roped twice around the chest so as to drag behind him on a pallet the white marble head of a horse, eyeballs bulging, mouth open.
As the man swung his head like a dull tormented beast, I was riveted by the absence of a nose.
“It’s Elgin!” I cried. “It’s Lord Elgin!”
Yes, that man of light was none other.
Around him, now here, now there, flickered a cute little boy and a cute little girl, two cherubic figures of light who stabbed at Elgin’s posterior with sharpened sticks, goading him on… no, not sticks, those were artist’s paintbrushes, reversed, the pointed ends to the fore. The progress of the pallet struck me as distinctly smoother than if were proceeding over the irregularities which I knew were present, more as though it was sliding slowly up a decently laid roadway.
Goaded onward, the Seventh Earl lurched and staggered, haggard and gaunt.
“Poor chap’s in an awful shape,” said Phil. “But what do you mean, Elgin?”
“He is a ruin,” Mehmet joined in. “Don’t try to say that in Greek” – as if we could! – “háli is a ruin, but halí is a carpet. Bad business to say one’s carpet is a ruin.” Yes thank you, Mehmet.
A voice – from where? it seemed everywhere – wailed loudly, “Oy-mayyy! O Kos-mayyyy…!”
An American nearby demanded loudly, “What’s that mean?” as more words lamented through the air.
His companion, a woman, replied, “O me! O World! It’s Ancient Greek. O World! O Woe! The Goddess’s Temple Was Ravaged by Him!”
“Ravaged by Elgin!” I called out. “That’s Elgin there! The man with no nose!”
Because, of course, I had his nose on my face…
As the Seventh Earl proceeded laboriously up the Panathenaic Way, hauling his burden towards where it had been looted from, tormented by spectral boy and spectral girl, the army of youths came to a standstill, staring at the bright eerie sight. Everyone, even police, were gaping.
Mrs Anastasia was by my side, demanding, “What do you mean, that is Elgin?”
Her tone conveyed that my ancestor’s name was tantamount to a swearword. If she was complicit in some government hoax, her astonishment was well acted.
“Isn’t it obvious?” I said. “He’s being punished for his crimes – by having to drag marbles back to where they came from. But what are those cute imps that are goading him?”
“Yeah, what are those acrobat kids?” joined in the American.
They were cartoon characters, the mop-headed boy wearing short turned-up trousers, a loose t-shirt and baseball cap, the girl with her long Bardot tresses likewise. Big cartoon trainers on their feet; their eyes, big cartoon ovals.
“I know those,” declared Mrs A. “They’re from a colouring book for children. Called something like Paint Athens 2004, yes it was published for the Olympic Games.” She crossed herself, and her voice rose direly, almost an echo of that sourceless O Kos-mayyy voice which had fallen silent for the moment, although a keening noise could now be heard like microphone feedback. “But those aren’t the happy children in that book – they’re the Erinnyes, the Eumenides with a modern appearance! The avengers of blasphemy as well as of parent-slaughter. They can take any form they choose.”
Other people around were calling out in Greek something like Eumenides.
“Come again?” said Phil.
“They’re the Dogs of Hades who tormented the guilty, who pursued Orestes here to Athens, here right here at this place, he who murdered his mother, the Furies singing a spell-binding song to secure their victim!”
Surely that thin screeching I was hearing was merely microphone feedback; though from where, and how?
“That happened right here?” I said.
“On the Areopagus hill just over there, where Orestes was tried, and the Goddess Athena – Pallas Minerva – she voted for mercy, and to appease the Furies she invited them to live in a cave near here, and be honoured by the citizens, and be the defenders of Athens forever. My God, what is happening?”
I thought I knew what was happening, rationally at least…
Parts of the youth army were chorusing a word that sounded like koro-idea!.
“They say hoax, mockery,” from Mehmet. “They think this is a… téchnasma, an artificial stunt.”
A phantasm produced by technology… With my detested ancestor as a scapegoat dragging his burden slowly onward and upward, to act as a lightning conductor for political anger. Actually, this all seemed rather monstrously unfair to old Elgin. After all, early Christians also vandalised the Parthenon, then Turks made it into a mosque by adding a minaret, and later the Turks even stored gunpowder inside the building which a Venetian artillery shell exploded, blowing the roof off and knocking down columns. Much havoc had already been wreaked by the time my obsessed ancestor (divinely inspired, so he thought) bribed the Turkish authorities to let him ‘rescue’ the best remaining sculptury, even if in the process, using explosives and saws, his workers caused more collapses and shatterings to the extent that even some Turkish official shed a tear and lamented, “It’s the end!” One wonderful cornice had fallen and smashed into umpteen pieces. Proudly Elgin had carved his name half way up the Parthenon, as well as his wife’s name.
But hadn’t he been punished enough, driven half mad by events, haggard, raging, constipated and staggering about (a bit like the ghost, although obviously I knew nothing about the ghost’s bowels), then losing his wife to a lover, going bankrupt, fleeing his creditors, dying in poverty in Paris? Or had the Furies been responsible for those calamities too, prior to Elgin’s afterlife? If Elgin hadn’t stolen the marbles, Napoleon would almost certainly have done so. However, Elgin succeeded (by and large), so he became the bête noire, the bogeyman, guilty of crimes like a looting Goering.
Those Furies, Disneyfied…
“What’s the different between Erinnyes and Eumenides?” I asked Mehmet, who looked blank.
Mrs A said distractedly, “Eumenides means kindly ones.”
“Is that sarcasm?” asked Phil.
“No, that was their new name after Athena’s merciful verdict on Orestes, to appease them as benevolent protectors of Athens. It’s all in Aeschylus.”
Aeschylus. Ah yes, him: the playwright. That, I could check up on. Why ever would Mrs A blurt out the source of this…
“Koro-idea! Koro-idea!” chanted the youth mob.
…this hoax, to a journalist, if she was a knowing party to it? To try to lead me astray from blaming the government, by appearing innocent and bewildered? Anyway, would the plan be to repeat this son et lumière on subsequent nights? Come to think of it, the alleged scientific measuring equipment might be partly responsible for producing the spectacle, which had only snapped into proper focus tonight, amplified…
“O Kos-mayyyy…!” mourned that bodiless voice loudly again.
A missile of some sort flew by – no, I’d swear that was an owl on the wing. Surely it should have shunned the rowdiness and brightness. The owl veered over the apparition – yes, clearly it was an owl – and headed out of sight in the same direction as Elgin and his burden.
An astounding realization came to me. The sharp pang which had passed through my entire frame a while previously, and which Phil hadn’t registered at all – so that it couldn’t have been some electromagnetic side-effect of a power source or projected images – that had been followed a moment later by the intensification and much clearer focus of the apparition. Could it be that my own presence, me with Elgin’s nose upon my face and consequently a particular cluster of genes in every cell of my body, had resonated with the ghost, or the ghost with me?
Before I could puzzle about this, a flare flew from out of the youth army, arcing high, burning bright, as if to dim or rival the spectacle on the Panathenaic Way. A second flare followed. Someone must have got hold of a Very Pistol or some single-shot tubes of distress flares. Stolen, maybe, from some yacht; there’d be lots of those moored along the sea front. The youth of Athens were indeed distressed, yet this was a reckless way to show it.
The first flare dropped down towards us in the corral, still burning. Panicking, people pushed aside, and the flare dropped into a vacant space, illuminating all around. Moments later the second flare likewise fell amongst us without setting fire to anyone’s clothes, although there were more squeals of fright.
A sudden flash and a fierce bang made my heart jump as if a grenade had gone off. Then came another similar explosion in our midst, and screams, though those didn’t have the agonised sound of injury. Fireworks, that’s what! Some of the rebel youths were hurling bangers at us.
At that moment a thunderous crash rolled over us, as if Zeus himself had answered. Still dazzled by the fall of flares, I couldn’t see any thunderclouds. Shrieks came from within the youth army; I suspected someone had blown his hand off – mishandling a firework too dangerous, or maybe a maroon.
“Fucking hell,” said Phil. “This is getting hairy.”
I was knocked aside by a visored, gasmasked policeman in full riot gear. He and others were heading for the youth mob – which reacted by rushing to break through the flimsy corral into our midst, swelling our numbers hugely as they used us as cover. Those police who had already been amongst us were now wrestling and punching hooded adversaries. Would the riot police fire tear gas into this confused medley of apparition-spectators, many of them hysterical by now, and their own colleagues, as well as protestors out of control?
Eleni appeared before me, still clutching her pole.
“You!” she exclaimed. Since I’d been clutching my little recorder all this time, to store my own commentary and Mrs A’s responses, I thrust this at Eleni.
“What are your plans?” I asked, rather stupidly.
She grinned wildly like a madwoman. “Thank you for inspiration!” was her reply. “It’s just like ancient times when the people arose against tyrants right here!”
Oh shit, I thought, hoping that Mrs A nearby wouldn’t register the first remark. But then Eleni registered Mrs A, discarded her pole, which almost beaned Phil who was still trying to take pictures, and she launched herself upon Mrs A, embracing her so that I thought for a moment that Mrs A was Eleni’s respectable bourgeois mother, agent of the establishment and the evil government, whom the daughter had rejected yet whom, meeting her now so surprisingly at such a hectic moment, Eleni attempted to hug.
No such thing. Eleni shouted, so that two hoodies responded by also seizing hold of Mrs A. One of them I recognised as Eleni’s surly pock-cheeked boyfriend. Swiftly Eleni unwrapped her scarf, twisting the garment till it was more like a woollen rope, and tied it around Mrs A’s mouth as a gag; whereupon the hoodies began dragging the resisting, kicking Mrs A off through the milling confusion in the direction of darkness – they were trying to take her hostage.
“Stay out of this!” Eleni ordered me, before hurrying to join the would-be abductors.
How could Phil and I let this happen? “Police!” I called out. “Help!”
“Voeethya!” (or something) bellowed Mehmet who hadn’t made any move to intervene earlier.
A policeman did appear quickly before us, heeded Mehmet’s explanation and gesticulations and pulled out a radio. Then he headed where Mehmet had pointed.
By now many people had spilled on to the Panathenaic Way so as to escape the fighting. Urged by Mehmet, Phil and I struggled in their wake. Max was going to be very pleased with his little investment. Just then I blundered into a small bush and tripped, scuffing my palms.
Scrambling up, I realised I’d been so distracted that I’d stopped paying attention to the apparition, or to where it was. As we emerged on to the ancient roadway, there it still was, in the middle distance, the spectre of Elgin toiling exhaustedly to drag his horsey hunk of marble uphill, pricked by those flitting little fiends. By now surely they should have been out of projector range, if any of the apparatus in the corral had been responsible; or maybe more was elsewhere. As the three of us pursued the phenomenon, clouds of gas erupted. The riot police must have run out of any other option as to how to quell the jumbled chaos, irrespective of how this would affect the innocent, or how it would come over in the news; or because that was their true nature as the young people claimed.
A wind had sprung up, so that some gas drifted rapidly uphill in our direction, and I smelled a curious odour which I didn’t associate at all with tear gas, CS gas, which I’d experienced in the past in Israel.
Had something else got into the armoury of the police? Maybe a rogue cartridge of hallucinatory riot gas – BZ, yes that was the name of the stuff – accounts for my, for want of a better word, hallucinations? Dare I say visions? Which, be it noted, Phil did not share…
I saw ahead of me, in tunnel vision as though through the wrong end of a telescope, a tiny scene which suddenly raced towards me, expanding.
Goaded and on his last legs, my ancestor hauled his load towards a towering female figure which just had to be that of Athena, goddess of Athens, who once dominated the interior of the Parthenon.
The Goddess was crowned with a triple helmet, three curving crests rising from figurines – two griffins flanking a sphinx. A pleated gown, gathered at her waist, hung down to her sandals, her toes showing. Torques clasped her upper arms. Snakes writhed on a short cloak reaching midway down her draped breasts. Resting against the inner crook of one elbow was a spear not unlike Eleni’s pole. A wide round face, straight nose, dark-pupil eyes. She was magnificent, aglow.
Halting at last, Elgin sank to his knees, his rope falling loose. Would this be the moment when, just as with what’s-his-name punished in Hades by being compelled to push a heavy stone uphill, the pallet and marble horse-head proceeded to trundle backwards, picking up speed, all the way down to the bottom of the slope once more?
As may have happened over and over. Otherwise surely by now Elgin might realistically have heaved back to where they rightly belonged the ghosts of all the marbles he stole two centuries and a bit ago?
Time – or eternity – might be entirely different for him, and for the Eumenides…
The two child-Furies sprang to this side, to that, as if unappeasable, their energy inexhaustible. Like hyperactive kids, no less. Athena was speaking, although I heard no words. The wreck of Elgin was replying silently. The kids seemed to be squawking in protest.
And the Goddess stretched out a hand. Reluctantly, each Fury surrendered its goad into her palm. Swiftly Athena reversed the goads, so that when the kids in their baseball caps and big trainers received the sticks back again those were artists’ brushes held for painting – or for tickling – rather than for jabbing.
Of a sudden the scene raced away, shrinking, collapsing… as likewise, I assume, so did I.
I woke to daylight in a hospital bed – one glimpse of my surroundings, plus that characteristic odour, absolutely shouted hospital even before I propped myself groggily on one elbow to focus upon beds in a ward. To my left, sitting up against pillows studying a newspaper, one arm in a sling, was Mrs Anastassiades in a hospital gown and cardigan. Her mobile phone lay on the blanket in front of her. Doubtless other occupants of the row of beds were victims from the previous night. A bored policeman sat by the door.
“You were rescued!” I called out to Mrs A. Did she know the part I played in shouting the alarm on her behalf?
She regarded me wryly. “In fact I raised my knee between the legs of one of the young men, and in the eyes of the other I managed to put my fingers. But then unfortunately I fell over a big piece of stone.”
“Oh. So you fought them off. Congratulations.” Furtively I checked that I wasn’t catheterised or some such.
“I apologize about our hotheaded young people. Last night was most unfortunate. Some of them,” she added, rustling the newspaper, “even vandalised the Parthenon with paint.”
I hauled myself up. “Did you say paint – ?”
At this point Phil arrived, with Mehmet. “Good to see you back in the land of the living! Interviewing already, old son? Your recorder ought to be in that cabinet beside you.” He produced my palmtop which I’d left at the hotel. “I reckoned you’d be wanting to write the piece for Max asap.”
“Yes, yes… Did you see what happened to the ghost?”
“Just disappeared, that’s all. Out like a light. Quite like you.”
Mehmet beamed. “I’m happy to see you well, Mr Johnson.”
“Thanks, yes… Mrs Anastassiades,” I managed, “what kind of paint?”
“Obviously spray cans, to cover so much in blue and red.”
“Did you know, Mr Johnson,” put in Mehmet, “the Parthenon was originally painted blue and red, and gold too in parts?”
“You’re joking,” said Phil.
“No, the Greeks painted buildings, and statues too. Parthenon stones nowadays are not as Pericles saw them.”
“Why would they paint beautiful white marble? Well, not white exactly. More honey-colour, isn’t it?”
I hadn’t even seen the Parthenon yet. Which seemed odd when I recalled that, to ensure correct perspective, its columns cleverly converged and would meet one and a half miles up in the sky, so it ought to have been visible… I put the daft thought away.
“Why paint it?” said Mehmet. “For adornment. And to show off. In fact the white of Pentelic marble would not stay white. Mixed in it, is iron. This rusts. Iron oxide. So now marble looks honey.”
I had to laugh. “You mean, lacking the original paint, what’s left of the Parthenon is rusty? So to restore and protect it properly, the Parthenon ought to be painted?”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Mrs A. “We’ll clean the vandals’ paint off.”
“As many times as you have to?”
“What do you mean?”
“What if the paint reappears?”
“We’ll have better security! It’s strange how the vandals weren’t spotted last night.”
“Don’t you remember that the kiddy Furies, just like in that colouring book you told me about, were using the sharp ends of paintbrushes to goad Elgin? What if they gave the brushes to Elgin? Magically replenishing brushes?”
“Did you bang your head badly last night? We shall scrub the columns clean once and for all.”
“You mustn’t do that!” I protested. “That’s as bad as the British Museum did with the marbles. They even used metal scrapers to clean them, which was stupid. You ought to leave the paint, or add to it.”
“Mr Johnson, how dare you criticize our custodianship after admitting the vandalism of the British Museum! That is why the marbles must be returned to their home!”
“Yes, but not to that new museum you built at such expense. To the Parthenon itself, where they belong. Surely they can be re-attached after a spot of rebuilding.”
“Easy, easy,” Phil hissed at me. “Did you bang your head?”
“Re-attaching is how my ancestor would want to atone, seeing as Athena has forgiven him by now.”
Everyone was gaping at me. I seemed to have lost control of what I was saying. I felt like some oracle at Delphi gasping the words of a god.
“Easy, old son!”
I couldn’t help myself. “And now the Furies have become Semi-Kindly Ones at least, thanks to Athena. What’s she supposed to look like, by the way, Athena?”
“Mr Johnson,” said Mehmet, worried, “how can we know how an imaginary pagan goddess looks?”
“What did her statue in the Parthenon look like?”
Maybe a madman, or a concussion victim, should be treated circumspectly. Mehmet heaved a sigh.
“I believe the golden idol had a short cloak of snakes hanging from the neck… On her head was a helmet with three… horns? no not horns, wrong word…”
“Say no more.” I had truly seen the Goddess.
Mrs A looked daggers. “Mr Johnson, did you just say that Lord Elgin is your ancestor?”
“State you’re in, Nige,” said Phil, “you shouldn’t write anything for Max today.”
“How else could I recognize Elgin last night? Because of pictures, where his nose, um, wasn’t yet missing. Why am I so familiar with pictures of him unless there’s a family connection?” I was on the point of adding I have his nose, but I censored myself in time. “Don’t worry, Phil, I can stick to facts for Max.”
“Before you send anything, I’d better take a look at the story.”
Mrs A looked poised to demand the same, although she couldn’t order any such thing even if she was the Minister of Order herself.
“Is that why you came here to do a story, Mr Johnson?” she asked instead. “Because you already supposed Elgin might be involved? Why should you imagine that? Is the British Government involved in this manifestation? Is it some crazy scheme to keep the stolen marbles in London by making Greece seem ridiculous? It is you who shouted out that the supposed ghost was Elgin, no one else! Are you an agent provocateur?”
Aha, I could see her drift. Far from the manifestation being a political distraction organised by the Greek government, which had gone badly wrong, here was some perfidious James Bond exploit on the part of the British. The British Museum in cahoots with MI6 had prepared the ground, then I’d arrived to infiltrate myself. Us Brits would carry out any devious stunt to retain the marbles for which we’d fought against Napoleon! For that matter, an international consortium of museums might be responsible, since if Britain ever sent the Parthenon marbles back to Greece this would set a precedent for restitution of many looted art treasures to their countries of origin. Maybe the Russian SVR were the pranksters, using some miniaturised technology that melted after use, to protect the collection in the Hermitage if any of it was vulnerable.
Such could be the spin the Greeks might give to the chaos last night. I could see how Mrs A was already working this out, her newspaper dropped, her fingers unconsciously fondling the mobile phone. My god, if she had her way I could be arrested as a suspect, taken in for questioning. Which would certainly delay my writing a story. I might even be transferred to a psychiatric hospital, as delusional, unfit to fly on any plane. Or was I being paranoid, the way Elgin became due to stress?
Mrs A got out of bed, placed her mobile phone in the fingers protruding from the sling, and stralked off down the ward, doubtless heading for the toilets where she’d have privacy.
“Look, Phil,” I said, “I have to get out of this place right now. We need to fly home today. Asap.”
“But you can’t leave without being discharged first. Doctors usually do their rounds late morning, don’t they? Anyway, what about tonight?”
Misunderstanding, I remembered Phil’s idea of painting the town red at Max’s expense. “Phil, the Parthenon has already been painted red – and blue.”
“I don’t quite follow you…”
Then I cottoned on. Obviously he couldn’t see things from my perspective. For only I had seen the Goddess.
“Phil, nothing more will happen in the Agora tonight.”
“How do you know?”
“The climax was last night. The energy discharged.”
“You mean the riot?”
Useless to explain, so I nodded. “Yes, the riot happened. Now things will calm down, because… because a riot in the Agora will have shocked everybody. The militants will have lost whatever popular sympathy they had because of the Parthenon being daubed with paint.”
“You could be right,” he conceded. “Still, one day more?”
“One day more,” said Mehmet enthusiastically. “I take you to an interesting club.”
“I want to get dressed right now and just walk out.”
Mehmet said, “I think the policeman prevents you.”
With a sigh, I relapsed against the pillows. The prospect of interrogation and or detention in a mental hospital for observation was drawing closer.
After a while Mrs A returned, laid her phone on the blanket, and got back into bed.
She cleared her throat. “The young woman who incited my attempted abduction was arrested, you know. Apparently a British journalist tipped her off about arrangements in the Agora. Mr Johnson, I think you should leave Greece quickly before people become impatient with you.”
A wave of relief passed over me. She had consulted, reporting my peculiar state of mind as she saw it. The wisest council evidently was that my babbling about Athena and my ancestor meant I was an embarrassment waiting to happen. So I should take my nervous breakdown elsewhere. An editor would be unlikely to print any such revelations even in a paper of Max’s stripe, a point that Phil had already hinted at. I’d have no choice but to make my story more normal. Which I could easily, since I was perfectly sane, and not stupid.
If I wrote a full account, it would need to be dressed up as fiction.
Even though I knew the truth.
For I had seen the Goddess.
For I have the nose of Lord Elgin.