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Sunday, 29 April 2012

The lever (Ο Μοχλός)

Saturday for most bachelor workaholics in London doesn't start until the afternoon, or at least until after midday. This also applied to Nektarios. But this morning, he was up unusually early because he had decided to take on the duties of a babysitter. In particular, he wanted to ascertain that he really truly didn't want any children himself.

Rania was both surprised and happy that Nektarios wanted to babysit. It would be a chance for her and Timoleon to do something on their own in London without two toddlers trailing them. The previous day's scenes in Lillywhite's left much to be desired. As their parents were trying to choose some clothes from among the stacks of shelves and rows of aisles stuffed to bursting, the children were playing hide 'n' seek, shouting Boo! to each other at the most inpportune moments: they could be heard throughout the shop.
Nektarios liked living on his own. He liked the freedom that it offered, and he did not feel selfish about having so much of it. You only get one chance to live your life, his parents kept telling him, and he couldn't agree more. He wondered how his cousins coped with having two tiny tots to look after. "What do you do when you want to go to see a film at the cinema?" he asked her. "We wait for the DVD to come out," she replied.


Rania and Timoleon got up that morning looking quite refreshed, and he was pleased about this. "Are you quite sure about this, Nekta?" Rania asked him for the umpteenth time, just after they'd all had breakfast and she and her husband were heading out the door.

"All set," he replied.  "Just as long as I don't have to clean them up after they go to the toilet."

Rania laughed and assured him that there was no need to to worry about this. "We'll be back in three hours at the most." They had planned to have a meal out together in the Easte End.

Nektarios did not enter into the agreement unprepared. After work on Friday, he bought two notepads containing white sheets and a packet of felt tip pens. As soon as their parents were out the door, Viktoras and Veta started fighting over who got to use the blue pen first.

"OK, let's have a toss-up over this," he said, in an attempt to calm them down. This kept them quiet for a few seconds until the results of the toss-up were announced: heads, Veta won.Viktoras started howling.
"Hang on, Viktora, what we did was fair, wasn't it?" Nektarios spoke authoritatively.

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"No, it wasn't!" he screamed, "because I didn't win!" Veta didn't utter a word. She simply picked up the blue pen and began drawing what looked like a sky scene at the top of the page. Suddenly Viktoras grabbed the pen off her. It was her turn to howl. Nektarios couldn't believe how quickly this had all taken place. Risk assessment banking was much more methodical and less random than looking after two under-sixes.
"OK, Viktoras!" he boomed, "go sit in the naughty step!"

Viktoras turned to look at him. "What's that?"

Nektarios pointed to the top of the staircase. "Sit there," he directed him.

"And what I am going to do here?" Viktoras asked.

"Nothing," said Nektarios.

"Nothing?" Vikotras asked him, as if verifying what he had just heard.

"Yep, nothing, for ten minutes."

"Why ten minutes?"

Nektarios approached him and expalined in a calm manner, as if talking to a junior employee. "By then, you'll have understood why you shouldn't take pens out of other people's hands." Viktoras looked him squarely in the eyes.

"Can I do my drawing from here?" he asked. Nektarios thought about it quickly and decided that it was a better idea to let them work separately rather than putting them back together at the coffee table.

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"OK," he said with a hint of approval in his voice. Viktoras came back to the table and took his drawing. He also took all the pens that were still in the packet. Veta began howling again.

"I want that colour!"

Nektarios had by now realised that there was no way he was going to read the latest copy of Granta that he had also picked upat the bookseller's. These children were a clear case of 24/7. 

Rania and Timoleon came home laden with shopping bags at 1pm, just like they'd promised, to find the children eating biscuits and crisps.  

"How did it go?" Rania asked her cousin, as she looked over the children's drawings on the table. "Did you two have fun?" she asked them.

"Yes, this is much better than walking in the cold," Veta told her. "I want to stay here all day."

"And you don't want to go to the park?" Rania asked her. Not that it was on the plans: it was simply a way to entice them out of the comfort zone that had just been created. 

"Does it have swings?" By now, Veta realised that the word 'park' in London could mean a large empty green space.

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"You look tired," Timoleon said to Nektarios. "They must have worn you out, right?"

"No, not at all," Nektarios answered matter-of-factly. They weren't too much trouble really. I just look tired because I normally sleep until noon on Saturdays." Timoleon raised his eyebrows and laughed. "It's to make up for the lack of sleep during the week!" Nektarios added.

After quickly refreshing themselves, they set off altogether, heading to Liverpool St station. Trains and stations always  maintained the children's attention. There was so much for the eyes and ears to take in every second they spent in them. They eventually emerged in the Spitalfields area. Rania was disappointed to find that the market was about to close. Timoleon was glad. "You would have got lost in there, and would have just wasted more money on bric-a-brac."

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The tall buildings of the City stood out against the white cloudy sky. But the area had a neighbourhood feel to it. The roads looked tired and dirty, rather old and unkempt. Eventually they came to a pedestrian zone on Commercial St, where the shops began to take on an enhnic look. They found themselves at another entrance to the same market.

"Do you know the history of that pub?" Nektarios asked them. Its name was not clearly visible from their standing point. "Maybe you know it from the church next to it?" Rania and Timoleon were still stumped.
"You don't know your history very well then, do you?" Nektarios tut-tutted. "It's The Ten Bells, Jack the Ripper's haunt." He had been living in London for nearly a decade, and he felt that he knew more about her history than he did of his own hometown. Wellington's history seemed too short compared to the knowledge that he had acquired about his new home.

"When I first heard about this pub, I didn't know anything about its hostory either," he admitted. "My English friends all thought I had been living in a cave. They'd ask me how many houses I can buy back home with my salary." Rania laughed; Timoleon needed to have the joke explained.

"Do you think we'll be allowed to have a peek into the pub?" Rania asked. 

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"Not if you're dragging those two behind you," Nektarios said, pointing to the children. "They're not considered child-friendly." Rania dropped the subject. Nektarios thought back to the morning's babysitting stint. His belief was re-affirmed: children would tie him down, they would place restrictions on his movements, he would not be able to enjoy the life he had learnt to love from the day he arrived in London. When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, as the saying goes, and if he is tired of life, he won't be in need of children. 

The streets were starting to smell of India. Curry wafted in the air. Sari shops had sprouted up. Signs weren't posted in English. "Nektarios remarked that he had been to a friend's wedding here. It went on all day long, and people were coming and going as they pleased with no set time or formality for the event. Posters were advertising Bollywood films. Brick Lane. Banglatown. Who said Brits were rascist? 

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A short walk along the road, and Nektarios spotted the restaurant he wanted to go to. A short skinny waiter dressed in black greeted them at the door. There weren’t many customers at that time, but the restaurant didn't close in the afternoon. It was open all afternoon, and well intot he evening, until people stopped coming in. Rania and Timoleon left the ordering to Nektarios. The meal was supmtuous, a feast of colours, aromas and tastes. It felt like they were back home with their  respective mothers, who would be serving up plate after plate of delicious home-cooked food. There was no question of keeping to portions. The meals here did not have that full feel, where you felt as though you were abotu to burst. Most of them contained vegetables, even the rich meat stews in their thick sauces.

Timoleon was in seventh heaven - he loved good food, and had acquired a taste for South Asian cuisine from the few times that his wife cooked it, but Rania had stopped doing this as the children got older. They did not like the heat sensation, and they had already acquired a culturally-inclined seense of cuisine: "People here don;t eat that, do they Mum?" Viktoras had once quipped when she served a lentil dhal. "Got any normal φακές?" he asked her, quite unaware of the significance of what he had just blurted out. Today, both of them had stuck to white rice. The waiter was kind enough to supply some runny yoghurt, which again they treated suspiciously, as they were used to strained eating Greek-style yoghurt, while the puri and chapatti were passable.

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The time that the chldren had spent out of the house seemed to have passed much more quietly. Nektarios was beginning to have doubts about his previous experiences, as he watched them sitting placidly at the table, entertained by pouring salt and pepper into their glass, mixing it up with water, and pretending to cook.  Their parents were at least able to have a meal out in the company of friends, without too many problems, even though the spicy food was not quite their cup of tea. He noticed that they were better behaved when there was nothing to share, and everything was deemed as everyone's property. They hadn’t been too physically active for mos tof the day, nor did they spend too much time out in the cold, as they probably would have done with their parents in the preceding days. Treat them fairly, and they will respect you, he thought, remembering the words from one of the trainers in a management coaching session that he recently attended. 

With their stomachs full, they came out of the restaurant better prepared to brace the cold once again. They continued strolling around the area, where they spotted, to Rania's delight, a shop selling Indian sweets.
"Look at that one," she beckoned to both Nektarios and Timoleon, pointing to a pile of fried pastry swirls in the display. "What does it remind you of?" she asked them. 

"You're just trying to entice me into the shop," Timoleon jibed, taking Rania's query as a hint that she wanted to eat some more. 

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"Take a good look at that. It almost looks just like what your mum makes. Your mum makes them too, Nektarios." The men studied the swirls, all the while trying to think of a Greek food item that resembled them, but nothing came to mind. "Still stumped?" she asked them, as she turned around to see the children. They were making their way into the shop. Rania followed them, having decided to go in herself and buy some.

"We're not hungry, Rania," her husband moaned. Timoleon was never hungry because everything looked foreign to him. When they were strolling around the station areas, Rania would be pointing out the various food items that she had grown up with in Wellington with Nektarios, but Timoleondid not show the slightest interest in them: Roses chocolate, liquorice allsorts, Cadbury chocolate bars, Cornish pasties, soft-baked cookies, and all manner of sweets. Newsagents held a special place in her heart; even though she now found boiled sweets too sweet for her taste, she liked to look at the colourful array of ‘lollies’ on display, as well as the newspaper headlines: the medicine trials were receiving a lot of coverage at the time. Even Wendy’s didn’t stir any interest in him. At one point, while the children were playing in the toy cars outside the burger joint, supervised by Timoleon, she secretly sneaked in and bought some chips. Timoleon found them very moreish. 

"You will regret it if you don't try them," she warned him, reminding him of their Wendy’s experience.
The shop owners' dark skin was probably what was confusing her menfolk. Rania could see that the Asian sweet shop was filled with fried sweets and syrupy halva-like desserts. They had not asked for a dessert at the restaurant, as they were not used to doing this at tavernas, but if they had, then everyone might have seen the remsemblance between Greek and South Asian cuisine, if they hadn't already noticed it in the raita which tasted like tzatziki, or the chicken stew which tasted like a spicy krasato. The term 'Indo-European' was not solely limited to linguistic studies. Rania felt a lot closer to these people than those whose origins were not discernible. It is doubtful whether the shop owners realised that she was in their league: skin colour confuses people's judgment. She asked for a selection of the sweets closest to Greek halva and Cretan xerotigana, adding a few puffy pastry balls that looked like loukoumades, while the men watched her in amazement, as she ordered like a pro. Viktoras begged her to buy them a packaged chocolate-filled croissant. Veta asked for a chocolate muffin. Kids, thought Nektarios.

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"How did you know which ones to choose, Rania?" Nektarios asked her. His memory was now filled with images of his mother making loukoumades, dipping them in syrup and rolling them in sesame seed. "They taste very similar to Mum's." 

"There's something you didn't know, and you've been living here for so long!" she teased him, as they set off for the train station. They entered an empty carriage, and took out the box of sweets after taking their seats. Rania was dishing out paper hankies to everyone. Other people were now entering the carriage, 
 "Come over here, Vik," she called out to her son, who was sitting all by himself on the opposite seat facing them. They were all so busy indulging in the sweet treats that they did not realise the train was taking a while to take off. While Rania was licking her fingers clean, a guard came by and asked them if there was a problem in the carriage. They all looked at each other. Nothing seemed to be wrong, with them, or with any one else in the carriage. The guard did a double check of the whole carriage, which wasn't very full, as it was a weekend.

"Someone has pulled the emergency handle," the guard informed them, as he looked at Viktoras, who had returned to the empty seat opposite the one where his parents were sitting. He was sitting by himself, while his sister was playing "Paper, scissors, stone" with Nektarios. Viktoras had been the first to enter the carriage, as he usually pounced on the best seat available, the one that offered him the most amusement, to get it before his sister did. 

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The emergency handle was located at the height of the door handle. While the guard used his keys to turn the emergency handle back up, ready for use in a real emergency, Timoleon looked at his son. Without turning his head, he stated loudly:  The guard was also staring at Viktoras from the corner of his eye. Viktoras stared intently back at him too, but not his face: he was watching the guard's hands, as he performed his duties, until he heard his name mentioned. 

 "Ο Βίκτορας τό 'κανε," said his father.

 Thank God it's not a weekday, Nektarios was thinking. 

“Scissors!” Veta cried, slamming a hand over Nektarios’ which was in the shape of a piece of crumpled paper. 

Rania knew what everyone in the carriage had on their mind: ‘spoilt brat, negligent parents’. She had to find a way to save face. Quickly. "Did you pull that lever, Viktoras?" she asked him. When he didn't answer immediately, she turned to the guard: "I think my son pulled that lever while we weren't watching," she said meekly. The guard said nothing. He left as soon as he had finished his work. 

Viktoras looked up at his parents. He knew it was a bad moment when his mother used his full name.
“Did you touch that lever, Viktora?” his mother asked him once again. He started at her, then at his father, then back to his mother. 

Άσε με,”  he said, continuing to look straight ahead of him, without catching anyone’s eye contact. Rania went to sit next to him in order to give him a good scolding. Nektarios watched her. 

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“You’re not thinking of giving him wood, are you?” he asked her.

Now it was Rania’s turn to stare at someone. “No,” she said slowly, and turned back to Viktora. 

The train began to move, departing for Victoria Station. At that point, Timoleon couldn’t help himself. He cracked up laughing, leaving his wife in the middle of dealing with a cross-cultural crisis. But she too could also see the fun in it. From the corner of her eye, she tried to catch a glimpse of a smile – or a frown – on other passengers’ faces. There were none. Not a soul in the carriage spoke a word. She wondered what would have happened in the same situation if it had been played out in the Athens metro. 

Nektarios wasn’t sure what to think. Something had happened which could have been avoided, had Viktoras been instructed before getting on the trains not to touch anything. But this child had never been on a train before this trip. He probably hadn’t even travelled on a bus before. 

“Has Viktoras ever opened the car door while you’re driving?” he asked Timoleon.

“He can’t,” Timoleon assured him. “We’ve got child locks.” 

That explained a lot. Nektarios was now quite convinced that he was making the right decision. 

Although they don't pull levers on trains any more, they do do other things instead. For those still in doubt, I can safely say that it does actually get better. But no, Nektarios still hasn’t got any of his own. The photos included in the post (except for the drawing) are all holiday shots form our first family trip to London.

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