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Alexandros Papadiamantis: An Idler Print E-mail

An Idler’s Christmas (title of the original: Τα Χριστούγεννα του Τεμπέλη)

By Alexandros Papadiamantis

(Rendered by Vassilis C. Militsis)

The gelid northerly wind was blowing and high up in the mountains was snowing. One morning, master-Pavlos Piskoletos entered Patsopoulos’ public house to steady himself with an invigorating cup of rum, as he was ousted from home by his wife, reviled by his mother-in-law, beaten by his brother-in-law, exorcised by Madam Stratina, his landlady and shown the open palm by his three-year-old son, diligently coached by his worthy uncle to do this reviling gesture, the way parents do among the scum of society – how to revile, swear, blaspheme, and generally be utterly irreverent to holy symbols, such as the holy Cross, icons, candles, censers and kollyva. Tales appropriate for the Athenian public!

The farsighted tapster had foreseen to display next to the casks and bottles of grog some bars of soap, starch, rice and sugar in order for the neighboring decent housewives to come and buy without creating a scandal. He also had a coffee mill available. However, you could sometimes see, in the morning or in the evening, ill-kempt, slovenly women holding a hand under the fold of their dress at the hip, which meant that the purchase was not soap or rice or sugar.

Many times in the day, old Vassilo, a poor and derelict stranger, but free from prejudice, frequented the house to drink her rum in full view. Another customer was Mistress-Kostaina, the church help, who attended to the church chores as much as she could, standing by the tall candle-stand to attach the candles in the proper order, and the pennies she earned on Sunday she spent all on drinking with conscientious precision on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Among the other women customers was the landlady of two houses, Stratina, who at the gate, the yard, the street and the pub voiced all her secrets, more precisely the secrets of others. Some secrets fell in the courtyard and some were disclosed in the pub; most of them were divulged in the street, where she gave the names: which tenant had delayed a two-month rent, which debtor had not paid her the interest, which lady from the neighborhood had borrowed something she had not returned.

Master-Dimitris, the frock tailor, was three months behind his rent, Master-Pavlos Pikoletos five, counting the current month, six. Her best woman, Lenio, had deceitfully mortgaged her house twice, and now Stratina had to resort to lawyers and notaries to secure her rights. Katina, a niece of her ex-husband’s, had pawned to her a silver item in lieu of ten drachmas, and now according to the assessment of two goldsmiths, the item proved to be bogus, not worth the two rolls of the rusty copper coins – which, as was her wont, (this she did not say, but it was widely known) made old Stratis, her husband, go out of the house along with Margarita, her daughter, and Lenoula, her granddaughter; then she opened the stash cache, took out the two rolls of coins and with secret reluctance, as though the money was glued to her hands, handed them to poor Katina.

When Assimina, her former tenant, a songstress by profession, cleared out, she had owed her three months and nine days’ rent. And her furniture, which she should justly have relinquished to her landlady, she gave it away to her recent boyfriend – may she have broken her leg, may she always be cursed… Stratina received no more than a worthless, greasy old amulet, which, Assimina confidentially told her, contained wood from the Holy Cross … As soon as the artiste had beaten the hell out, the landlady, burning with curiosity, opened the charm and instead of the Holy Wood, what did she find? … a tangle of rags, hairs, Arabic script, different wizardry – worthless things … Can you hear that, neighbors?

Master-Pavlakis (as Pavlos was called by his diminutive) entered the shop shivering and ordered a cup of rum. The pub’s help knowing him well asked:

  • Have you got a nickel?

The man shrugged his shoulders ambiguously.

  • Bring me one, he said

He had no nickel. Money was all right, so was work, and wine, and good company. Best of all however was indolence, what fratelli Italians called dolce far niente. If he were assigned to make out the rules of the week, he would appoint Sunday as a holiday, Monday for leisure, Tuesday for dawdling around, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday for work, and Saturday for rest. Who claims that the Greek orthodox holidays are too many and the working days too few? This is said by those who have never done any manual labor and they only know to pass laws for others.

Just at the same moment, Dimitris, the frock tailor came from across to have his morning drink. His only consolation was the frequent short trips, as he used to call his drinking visits to the shop. He made five-minute pauses from his work, ten times a day, and went over to have a drink of wine. He also carried his work home and worked in his room as if he were an apprentice.

The frock tailor came into the shop and ordered a cup of wine. On seeing Pavlos, he said:

  • Pour a cup of rum for Pavlakis, too.

God him sent to settle the nickel problem between the patron and the waiter; the tailor sat next to Pavlos and took up such a conversation according to the train of his thoughts, but to Pavlos it seemed to advocate his own grievances.

  • There’s not such a thing as a holiday or a day-off, my friend, master-Pavleto (another diminutive). Neither is there idleness nor leisure. We had to work on Saint Nicholas’ Day, and on Saint Spyridon’s Day; on the day before yesterday, on Sunday we also worked. Christmas is drawing near and I expect to be working, too, on a holy day as it is…

Pavlos nodded his head.

  • I want to say something, but I don’t know how to say it, as I’m ill-lettered, master-Dimitris, my friend. It seems to me that all these leaders and rulers of the world, society in general, have set things amiss. Instead of work and leisure being equally divided on working days, either falls lopsidedly. We work hurriedly on holidays and then we stay idle for weeks and months on workdays.

  • What about laziness in the meantime? Interrupted with a sly impertinence the help boy of the pub, taking advantage of the fact that his boss was engaged talking with someone at the threshold and could not listen.

  • Let it be; what use is hard work or idleness? Wondered Dimitris. As things stand, there’s a big slack of employment and little accumulated work. Master-Pavlos is right, no matter who is lazy, be he myself, or Pavlos, or Petros, or Kostas, or Ghikas. My whole family works, I work, my son works, my daughter is a seamstress apprentice. Despite all this, we can’t make ends meet; we can’t even pay Stratina’s rent. We work for the landlady, for the grocer, the vegetable seller, the shoemaker, the trader. My daughter wants her finery, my son his pastime at the coffeehouse, he also needs new clothes, his entertainment. And then how can you prosper?

  • Very damp, master-Dimitris, said Pavletos responding to his own thoughts. Too damp down in the tanneries, the place is too low, heavy work, rheumatism, and colds. Then come, if you dare, to tan hides. Our hides have already been tanned.

  • Yours is well tanned all right, master-Pavlos, the waiter was again being impertinent, this time alluding to the scenes between Pavlos and his wife’s brother.

Then the tapster came over. Master-Dimitris left to resume his work and the conversation was interrupted. Master-Pavlos became absorbed in his own imaginings. Today is Saturday, the day after tomorrow is Christmas Eve and the day after, Christmas. If he only had some money at least to buy a poult, as everybody did, for the Christmas feast! Now he sorely regretted for not going to the tanneries the previous days to work his way into some money so he could spend the season’s holidays frugally. “Too soggy, the place is too low, the work too heavy. Dare come to tan hides! Our skin wants tanning!”

He knew the popular tale about the lazy bloke who was about to hang and condescended to have his life spared provided his rusk was “soggy”. He also knew another story about Idlers’ Inn, allegedly founded by Mehmet Ali in his native town of Kavala. There, since there was too much, idling, the custodian of the inn contrived to lay down a mat where he made idlers lie down and then set the mat on fire. Those who preferred being burnt to getting up were genuine lazybones, who were entitled to eating the offered pilaf. Those who got up to avoid being burnt were not real sluggards and forfeited their rights. There were so many families of benefactors, such as Vallianoses, Averoffs, Syngroses – thought master-Pavlos – and none thought to set up a similar establishment in Athens!

Master-Pavlakis let two days pass by until Christmas Eve came. He did not cease to daydream and hanker after the poult. How could he procure one?

After nightfall, driven out of his house, as usual, he ventured towards the pub through a side alley and was about to get into it. His mind was constantly on the poult. The fowl would also come very handy as a means of making up with his wife.

There, as he was on the point of entering the taproom, he spied a boy carrying on his shoulder a hamper, which appeared to contain a turkey, horseweeds, oranges, some butter perhaps and different groceries. The boy was looking around apparently seeking some house or other. He was about to enter the shop to ask, and on seeing Pavlos turned to him.

  • Eh, comrade, do you happen to know where Mister Thanassis Βeliopoulos’ house is hereabouts?

  • Mister Thanassis Be…

Then Pavlos had a bright idea.

  • He’s told me the number and just forgotten it, said the boy. He must have recently found a house in this street … he used to be our customer … he stayed farther on at Gerani before.

  • Ah, Mister Thanassis Beliopoulos’! dissembled master-Pavlos, see, that’s his house. Call for mistress-Pavlaina, inside the yard in the ground-floor room … she’s his landlady … how shall I put it? She’s family … he lets her have a free hand on everything … she’s very thrifty with his household … she’s his sister-in-law … I mean, she’s his niece … call for her and give her the shopping.

And taking a few steps to the yard gate, he pretended to call:

  • Eh, mistress-Pavlaina, come over here to get the goodies your master … the head of the house has sent.

So far so good. Master-Pavlakis was rubbing his hands and seemed to feel on his nose the tickling from the odor of roasted turkey. But he did not care so much for the turkey as for making up with his wife. He spent the night in an overnight coffee-house and in the morning he went to church.

All day long he joined company after company of old acquaintances in the pub, which was open for the most of the day but his windows were shut. He spent the day on some tidbits and many treats.

At nightfall after many libations, fortified with courage and recalling the turkey, he knocked his family’s door, which was barred from inside.

  • Good evening mistress-Pavlaina, Merry Christmas, he cried from outside. How did you like the turkey? You see how I’ve provided for you?

No response from inside. All in the courtyard was quiet. The ground-floor premises, the basement, Mrs Stratina’s chicken coops – all was sleeping. The dog only recognizing master-Pavlos, growled a little and became quiet. Besides three or four families residing in the sunless rooms, there were also two goats, a dozen hens, four tomcats, two turkeys and several pairs of pigeons. The goats were chewing the cud deep in their sheltered small corral, the hens clucking in their perches, the pigeons gathered in their cotes frightened by the tomcats, which hunted them in the night. All these small sounds were the snoring of the slumbering yard.

Soon, the thump of footfalls was heard inside the house.

  • Eh, master-Pavlos, said mistress-Stratina coming near him. What are you talking about? What turkey are you babbling and bragging about, bless you, my lad? We’d been at pains to cover up the scandal, so that the house would not be insulted … The man who should have had the turkey came around midnight and cried his head off threatening all of us, your family in particular, who had already put the turkey in the pot to cook. They were very embarrassed and didn’t know what to do … your brother-in-law said that’s quite a gag of you locked themselves in all day long dreading lest the owner of the turkey came again and called the police … I was also scared dead about the reputation of my house. No more of your jests, master-Pavlakis. I won’t stand such a shame on my house, do you hear?

  • Now … is my family in? Master-Pavlos asked timidly.

  • They’re all in, locked up, with the lamp turned down for the fear of Jews. Watch out for that boorish brother-in-law of yours, or else…

  • Is he in?

  • Whether he’s in or not, he must be coming … there I can hear his voice someplace.

Indeed a voice was heard from near about, which foreboded no good to the nocturnal visitor.

  • Eh, master-Pavlinos, someone said, very tasty, your turkey…

The one that spoke did not show himself. Perhaps it was master-Dimitris, his neighbor or the dreadful master-Pavlos’ brother-in-law, his sister’s husband.

  • Couldn’t I possibly have a snack from the turkey? Asked our man plaintively.

  • What use can the snack be to you, my good master-Pavlakis? Things are very grim. Let it be. Work is good for you, only work! Brave men are proved by work. Now it’s all done and over with. You’d better go and work, so that you can bring the rent due to me. Do you hear?

  • I do.

  • Bring me the money, and in spite of my destitution, I’ll sacrifice one my turkeys to feast.

From within the house a raucous murmur was heard followed by a little child’s voice saying:

  • To yaw health, matte-Palo, lathy dog, bad fatha. We’ve ate de toiky. So hea, take five fom my open palm, plus five mo’ fom my otha!

Apparently, his wife’s frightful brother was in the house and had instructed the child to utter these words.

  • Don’t tarry a moment, master-Pavletos, said Stratina, for your own good! Off you go now and from the day after tomorrow set down to work!

There was some noise from within as if someone were walking with a heavy step to the door.

  • Off I go, Pavlos repeated unconsciously; actively agreeing with the words … “off you go and work.”

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