Translation: Kleo Webber
She always takes the stairs on the way down – she avoids the lift; she can smell the medication through her mask; it escapes from the crack below the first floor flat, where the old lady lives. On the ground floor, the Syrian woman is already cooking soup using spices from her homeland, her front door ajar. On the landing, outside, there are her children’s tricycles and second-hand toys in a cardboard-box, bearing the name of a detergent brand, evoking the whiff of baby skin and dirty nappies. She can hear the mother’s voice joining those of her children; she is always on the phone. The father is hardly ever seen.
When she returns home, the smell of death lingers in her nostrils. If she is lucky enough to witness the exhumation of some old man, she gazes at the bones wrapped inside the suit of man-made fibre, still looking brand new, a quiet puppet, still and odourless, like the annex to a morgue. If it was a child that had died of illness being exhumed, there is the reek of flesh preserved by chemicals that cannot decay. Such oversized bald dolls still terrify her, even after five years as a contract worker at the municipal cemetery. The stench of unfair fate cannot be washed off.
Going up the stairs she can hear the afternoon sounds through the block of flats. Yet, she cannot get angry at the stomping of the ground floor children or the cacophonous company of the booming tv set of the widow on the first floor. Late in the evening, when Photis returns from the party offices, the sounds of their own flat sometimes join the rest. His shouting, doors banging, her body thudding into the furniture, a living puppet controlled by his hands.
They met during a protest march. He was holding a bullhorn coordinating the crowd. His fervour excited her. Since then, this exaggerated fervour, unless met with her agreement or consent, is spent on short dramas she persistently forgets. Thankfully, his long absences, at the shop and the party offices, afterwards, particularly around elections, are a lifesaver. She has enough time to wash, put a few drops of the cheap citrus cologne below her nose to chase away the scent of death and get some sleep, once the magic of the pills kicks in and plunges her into oblivion.
One day she comes back, but she’s not the same. Her ears do not pick up the sounds of the building – they are filled with the echo of the mourning mother over the grave of her daughter, killed by her son-in-law.The funeral was taking place next to where the woman was working. She was already down the hole in the ground; she dropped the shovel, and, frozen on the spot, watched the slim, black-clad woman cursing and beating her chest. Later, in the shed that served as a place to change from her dirty work clothes, an old, wrecked, portable tv set was on – an afternoon magazine-show playing, the panellists zealously analysing the accusations an actress was making against the assaults and humiliation she had suffered at the hands of a film star.
She took the next few days off work, riveted to the couch for hours, switching between programmes incessantly reporting new accusations of abuse, rapes, sexual harassment. Faces are no longer hidden in the dark, as they used to be. The caption below informs that “the victims are talking”. Photis pays no attention to her. He is planning to run as a candidate in the next national elections, expected within the year, after working behind the scenes for so long. He is always out, paving his way up, canvassing votes from party members and voters of the constituency. Around midnight he enters the flat, passes her by silently. She looks like a statue in front of the reverberating screen. He goes through to the bedroom and sleeps, almost fully dressed, in their bed.
Once her leave of absence is over, she asks him to break up. He pretends not to hear her. He gets dressed and is about to go. Before he closes the door behind him, he says nobody can throw him out of the house he keeps and pays for with his own sweat, and she must stop being hysterical, particularly now, at this critical time for his political future.
So, she gets ready and, after a long time, goes to the party offices, too. Photis is away on tour in nearby villages. An MP from the capital is there, an old friend of Photis’, brain-washing some mask-wearing party members, maintaining a safe distance, of course, and observing all hygiene rules. He sings Photis’ praises; his ethos and dedication to the party’s principles and values, how he always stands by anyone who is in trouble or has been treated unfairly. She does not stay long. And it is not the mask suffocating her.
On the way back she calls an old lover now working at the local tv station. Her accusation about her incessant abuse and humiliation by her former partner, and outstanding party member, as well as her intent to proceed with judicial action against him is announced as an exclusive story by the tv anchor at the eight o’ clock news – an indisputable success for the channel.
The news arrives at the speed of light at party headquarters. The MP is trying to persuade party leaders about Photis’ competencies, arguing in his usual rhetoric that party personalities’ personal lives should not be of concern when fighting to achieve their goal, which is nothing less than winning the national elections. Unfortunately, he does not manage to persuade anyone that no end should be put to the career of his select and future ally. «In the light of the new circumstances, we can follow no other course of action», is the deputy leader’s confession on the phone.
The woman goes down the stairs for the last time. She stands outside the widow’s door and smells the bean soup being cooked for her lonely lunch. The ground floor is quiet. The family must be having their meal, savouring the aromatic dishes of their land around the low wooden table. The woman is holding a suitcase digging into her fingers, carrying all she needs to start a new life. Her resignation from work is a promise that she will keep away from so much death.