Ekaterina by Jack Cope


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In some countries, young people marry a person chosen for them by their parents. Sometimes these arranged marriages work very well; and sometimes they don’t.

It becomes more difficult when there are questions of money, or of distance. Perhaps the man’s family is rich, and the girl’s family is poor. Perhaps the two families live in different parts of the world. From Greece to South Africa, for example, is a long, long way…

Coming into Athens. The man in the next seat put away some papers, looking bored.

‘Air travel has changed our idea of place, time, country,’ I said to him. ‘In fact, there aren’t countries any more, in the way we used to think of them. Nowhere is more than twenty-four hours away. Soon, the idea of having different countries will just disappear.’

He laughed.

‘What’s so strange about that?’ I said. ‘And yet where I came from, there are still people who measure distance by days. “He lives two days’ walk away,” they say.’

‘Are we talking about life in this century?’ he said.

The man was an American, and I had to explain what things were like in parts of Africa. I’d lived in some of its wilder places during my fifty years.

‘And now we can travel at the speed of sound,’ I went on, ‘but we’re like children. We don’t know what to do when we get there.’

He thought I was a little crazy. ‘If you come from South Africa, you should be black and speak Zulu,’ he said.

‘I do speak Zulu,’ was my answer.

He left the plane at Athens, and I was not sorry to see him go. Johannesburg was another twelve hours away.

I had not travelled through Athens before, so I ran down the steps from the plane to put my foot for the first time on Greek soil. I thought back two and a half thousand years, to the time of ancient Greece. Did those great writers, Euripides and Aristophanes, once walk where I walked now? Did they see these same white and gold hills, breathe this same air?

It was late afternoon, and a soft summer light lay on those distant white hills. Over the smell of hot engine oil around the airport, I told myself I could smell the sweet clean air of ancient Greece. I was not looking at faceless passengers hurrying into a crowded airport, but could see girls with flowers in their hair, dancing to ancient music, for ancient gods. And away to the north of the airport Athens called to me, that city of light, the birthplace of the Western world, but I had no time to visit. I had to board my plane again.

At the entrance to the airport building, a few bright flowers grew in dry, dusty soil. A young man with bad teeth stopped to offer me picture postcards of Athens.

Then a bewildered little group of men and women came into the airport building. The men, in poor best clothes, had big red hands. The women carried boxes and packets, and one of the men had a cheap suitcase. A young girl at their center, wearing a yellow suit which looked uncomfortably new, stared around her at the strangeness of everything. She looked straight at me with the same bewilderment, smiled and turned away. Her face had a beauty that was centuries old – large dark eyes, a short straight nose, and a lovely mouth. There was a circle of white star-like flowers in her long black hair.

The light still touched the ring of hills as the sun went down. When the same sun rose again for me, it would be red and wintry over South Africa. Why not leave the plane here, and find a little house somewhere? Maybe there was a deeper, quieter peace in these ancient hills than in other places.

But they were calling my flight. I ran for the plane and was the last to board it. The next seat to mine, left empty by the American, was now taken by the young girl in the yellow suit. She stood up at once to welcome me, speaking in her own language, and gave me her hand. She moved with all the naturalness of a wild animal. There had been tears in her eyes.

Back in her seat, she was looking out of the window, trying to see the tiny figures far away across the runway. She waved a hand that no one would see. The plane’s engines started up. I saw that a finger of the hand at the window carried the shining gold circle of a new wedding ring.

She cried in silence, as the plane took off and rose heavily into the sky. We could see the dark blue sea below, and far to the west, the path of the dying sun on the water.

Flying was clearly a new experience for her. She said something quietly, shaking her head in wonder. The sadness left her, and a minute later she touched my arm and excitedly pointed out something. Athens was disappearing into the sea and the night; already we were rising through the clouds.

I decided to go back to reading my magazine. There was no way of making polite conversation, and it seemed useless to look at her just because she was very good to look at. But she seemed not to realize there was a language difficulty.

‘Ekaterina,’ she said, pointing to herself.

I told her my name – Neil Gordon. We shook hands again, and she was delighted that we could understand each other so easily. We continued our conversation using expressions and hand movements, and in answer to her questions, I explained that I was not an Englishman, a German, or an American. I was a South African, living in Johannesburg.

‘Ah! Yoannisburg!’ That was where she was going. She looked very pleased, and went on talking. There was a warm feeling between us – we seemed like close friends. Sometimes her face changed and she looked sad, as she turned the ring on her finger. Then suddenly she smiled and became cheerful again. I did not understand her words, but that did not matter. She was like a child talking to herself in the night, or a mother telling her thoughts to her baby.

The air hostess was passing, and I said to her, ‘Do you understand Greek?’

‘Not a word,’ she replied, ‘but one of the other passengers looks Greek, so I’ll ask him.’

A minute later she was back. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘he isn’t Greek, he’s Italian. But he says he’d be very pleased to change seats with you and talk to the young lady.’

‘Tell him,’ I said, ‘to stay in his own seat. I’m very happy where I am.’

The lights inside the plane had come on. The girl took off her jacket and, smiling, asked my opinion of the blouse that she was wearing. Unlike her factory-made suit, it was a beautiful thing. Clearly she had made it herself, and hours of careful work had gone into the patterns of flowers and leaves. I told her how lovely it was. She watched my expression carefully, her face blushing a little.

Her eyes became serious. She sat thinking for a moment, and then she decided. She took her passport from her bag, and put it into my hands. It was a passport of my own country, with Ekaterina’s frightened little face looking out of the photograph. How did she come to have a South African passport? She had never left Greece.

But explaining this to me wasn’t difficult. She had married a South African, married him that morning, in fact. And her husband? He was in Yoannisburg. She was going to meet him there. She had never seen him. The marriage had been by proxy. Her parents had arranged it. I began to understand the whole thing. The husband had paid for everything. He had paid for her. He had sent money for the plane ticket.

I asked the air hostess to bring a bottle of wine, to drink to Ekaterina’s happiness. The Italian passenger came to see her. I told him Ekaterina had been married that morning, and invited him to join us in a drink. He tried Italian, Spanish, and German on her, but she only looked at him, surprised.

He drank to her happiness and kissed her hand, which was small and strong, a working girl’s hand.

‘She is too beautiful,’ he said to me. ‘Are you taking her to her husband?’

‘Certainly not. In fact, I want her to run away with me, and there’s a good chance she’ll agree to it.’

‘She is just a child.’

‘I know how old she is, I’ve seen her passport. Do you still want to talk to her?’

He shook his head and went back to his seat. Ekaterina said something and smiled. She drank her wine slowly, and in a moment was lost in her own thoughts again. Her beauty was timeless, centuries old, untouchable. But the soft light in her eyes and the shine of her dark hair brought her into the present for me – here and now, sitting beside me, a warm, living, breathing girl.

She turned to me, looking serious. She put her hands together in front of her, to show that she was asking for my help with something very important. Then she calmly handed me a photograph. It was of a young man, about twenty-eight or thirty. He had thick dark hair; the face was generous in its way, strong if not handsome, and the eyes were pleasantly gentle. The photo had been cut out of a larger photo, but enough was left to show that behind the young man was a shining new car.

Who? It was her husband, of course, whom she had never seen. She told me his name: ‘Savvas Athanassiades.’ I hadn’t looked up from the photograph, but I knew she was watching me carefully. Standing next to the car, Savvas looked unusually short. I had owned a car like that myself, many years ago. But why did Savvas want a photograph of himself in front of a thirty-year-old Chevrolet, shiny or not?

‘A good man,’ I said. ‘Let’s drink to Savvas Athanassiades.’ I avoided her eyes, pouring more wine into our glasses. But her woman’s instinct told her something was wrong; I could feel that she didn’t believe me. Slowly and miserably she put away her photograph. Then she noticed her glass and lifted it. ‘Yoannisburg,’ she said.

‘Athena,’ I replied. She repeated it and added with a sad smile, ‘Vari.’ I did not know the town of Vari, but wherever it was, it was the place where she had left her dreams.

Dinner was the usual kind of tasteless meal that you get on planes. I showed Ekaterina how to hold her knife and fork, and she got through it by watching and copying. From time to time she looked happily at me, her face a little pink from the wine. To her, it was all new and strange and wonderful.

We came down at Khartoum and left the plane for an hour. Ekaterina kept close to me as we walked to the airport building through the hot, breathless African night. There were sleepy flies on the dirty tables in the restaurant. We drank a warm, sweet drink that tasted of soap. A man came through the restaurant, selling things. He showed Ekaterina a piece of cheap silk, and her eyes shone with delight. I offered to buy it for her. She thanked me, but no, it was impossible. Not because I was a stranger, no, that wasn’t it. Perhaps because she couldn’t give anything back. Then the man put a fan into her hand. It was worth almost nothing, and I paid too much for it. But that was different – a fan was necessary in the heat.

The plane took off again, lifting up over sleeping Africa. For a short time the River Nile looked silver in the moonlight, until it was lost in the darkness. We went on climbing alone into the milky sky. The passengers started preparing themselves for sleep. Ekaterina turned towards the window, and I lay back in my seat, horribly uncomfortable.

About half an hour later I woke up. Like a newborn animal, Ekaterina had moved as close as possible to me. One arm was round my neck, and her face was half hidden in my shoulder. She smelt sweet and warm, like wildflowers or deep, newly turned soil. She was asleep, and in her dreams she had returned to Vari, to a street of quiet little houses, to a single room full of sisters and brothers, with animals to take care of, perhaps. Had she ever slept alone? Who was I in her sleep, who was held in her poor arms? A little brother who was always crying, a sister restless with hunger? How could her family have sold this lovely child to an unknown husband? Perhaps he was an honest man who had earned his place in South Africa. And now he was looking back into the past, to take a wife of his own country, of the blood of Greece. I only hoped he was good enough for her. I tried to tell myself, ‘She’s nothing to me. What does it matter who she marries?’ But it wasn’t easy to say that, when she was actually asleep and warm and living against my body.

I slept a little, and when I woke up, Ekaterina had not moved. But she was now awake, and her large eyes were fixed darkly on me. How long had she stared at me like that?

‘Hello, Ekaterina,’ I said.

‘Hello.’ She closed her eyes, preparing for sleep again.

‘Ekaterina, I’m talking to you.’

A little movement of her head showed that she was awake.

‘Listen, it may be a good thing that you don’t understand. Listen, Ekaterina, you shouldn’t be here. Go back, take the first chance to go back. This marriage may work, but it may not. It’s all wrong. You’re not a thing for a man to buy, you’re not a prisoner. It’s so important to be free. Go back and learn to be free. They’ve taken the past from you and you’re throwing away the future. Ekaterina, it’s always better to die fighting – you must know that.’

I was talking almost to myself. She could not understand a word, but something in my voice frightened her. She began to cry. The great plane went on into the silken blackness. Under us lay Africa, sleeping in the long night wind.

She cried quietly, but not for long. I think she was used to having sadness in her life. She took my hand and kissed it before I could stop her – a little show of grateful feeling which I found very moving. Then she dried her eyes, and talked brightly for a few minutes like a playful child. Soon she fell asleep, and her arms reached out again towards me, in that instinctively loving way of hers.

We came in over South Africa before daylight. People began to wake up. I went to have a wash, and when I got back, I found Ekaterina very unhappy. She and the air hostess were looking everywhere for something. The Italian was there too, down on his hands and knees to help with the search.

‘What are you looking for?’ I asked him.

He stood up, looking angrily at me. ‘The girl’s miserable. What have you done to her?’

 

‘You haven’t slept well, I suppose?’

‘Slept! I never sleep well on a plane.’

‘You should find another way of travelling.’

He went crossly back to his seat. Ekaterina asked me to help, but I had no idea what was missing. Had it disappeared at Khartoum?

‘Khartoum!’ She threw up her hands in the air. Yes, perhaps the people at Khartoum had robbed her. Then suddenly a passenger a few seats away held up a packet of newspapers. Ah, that was it – yesterday’s Greek papers, for the good Savvas to read. The evening news from Athena arriving in Yoannisburg the next morning. Lucky man.

I helped Ekaterina off the plane with her bags and packets. The air was cold, and she looked around her, frightened. I lost her in the crowd at the passport desks, and did not see her again until we were in the main hall of the airport building. There she was in a group of four or five people. Her head was low and her face was hidden in her hands. I could not see which was Savvas; there was nobody who looked like the man in her photograph.

She lifted her head and stared around. Then she saw me and came running down the hall. She put her head, like a child, on my shoulder, crying miserably. The little group of strangers watched from a distance. Now I saw that Savvas, the new husband himself, was there. It was certainly the man from the photograph, but he was bald and old, and very short and fat. I had half expected it.

‘Ekaterina, I’ll help you get back if you wish, to Athena, to Vari…’

I gave her my business card, with my address and phone number, and she stared at it through tearful eyes. She took my hand and held it for a moment. Then she dried her eyes and walked slowly back to the waiting group, her head held high.

My son and his wife, Loraine, found me standing there. I had not moved, and was staring after Ekaterina.

‘Who’s that beautiful little thing?’ Loraine asked.

‘Ekaterina.’

‘Is it a love story?’

‘I don’t know. I think it’s more like an unhappy ending.’

They were amused, and laughed about it while we had breakfast in the airport’s large, cheerful restaurant.

‘It’s possible you’ve got it all wrong,’ said Loraine. ‘Remember, you couldn’t understand what she was saying.’

‘My instinct tells me I’m right.’

‘Your instinct! Only a woman can be sure of her instinct.’

Why didn’t I speak to Savvas Athanassiades at the airport? I do not know where to find him. His name is not in the phone book. I have waited to hear from Ekaterina, but nothing, not a word. Where is she? I remember how she walked calmly away, with her head up. Her dark shining hair, the yellow of her suit… Choosing to go, walking freely into a darkened future… But after all, perhaps Loraine is right.

I have heard nothing, and it is now four days.

– THE END –

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