The sun was going down. Alex laid a bottle of Amstel on the table. ‘That’s fae auld Hector,’ he said, and disappeared back into his cubbyhole. John looked across the room. Hector was crouched over his walking stick, his chin on his hands, watching a game of tavli. He had a glass of lemonade at his elbow. He hadn't drunk much of it.
John opened his jotter and started scratching with his pencil. The joys of 2H. You had to be careful not to tear the paper, but they lasted longer than HB. Such was his philosophy. The summer was at its height. The season was nearly over, but the sweet smell of peaches still hung in the air. The harvest was brought in by the Albanian itinerant workers. Three of them were sitting out the front of the cafeneio. One of them might have been called Sammy – their names were difficult to pronounce. They were living in an abandoned house on the edge of the village. John had been in it, once. The guy who might have been Sammy had wanted to see him about something. John hadn’t found out what – Sammy’s Greek was bad, and his English was non-existent. It looked like the kitchen was the only room they were using. The furniture consisted of sleeping bags and plastic bags. A battered wood stove squatted in the middle of the room, the door hanging open, plastic plates stacked on top. Flies buzzed around the window, which was no more than iron bars jammed into a hole in the wall.
There was a shout from the corner. Someone was cheating. A double six at this stage of the game! Hector didn’t budge.
Perhaps it had been wrong to leave the city. The bucolic lifestyle was fine for a holiday, but John had grown tired of it. There was nothing to do apart from sit in the caff listening to old men shouting at the telly or each other. Come to think of it, that was the nightly entertainment in the city as well, but at least he had friends there. Or used to. Most of them had had enough and shipped out. There would be no replacements coming in September. Things were changing. People were going further afield after university, as if South Korea would give them a more rounded perspective on Life. What was it with twenty-year-olds being so intent on finding their inner selves? He’d met dozens. Most of them had problems that were only compounded by the grind of trying to survive in a foreign country. There was no enlightenment in teaching English.
He stopped writing.
A group of middle-aged men had gathered outside. Each had a pickaxe handle over his shoulder. One of the men struck the kerb a few times, then checked that the wood hadn't splintered. He came over to Sammy, who turned to his mates.
‘Let’s be havin’ yez,’ said the man. He made a big deal of consulting his watch. ‘Time tae get up the road.’
Silence in the cafeneio. The game of tavli had stalled. Everyone was looking. Even Hector, his chin still on his hands, had turned round. Alex put down the glass he was polishing and went outside. ‘Leave them alone,’ he said. ‘They’re no daein’ anythin’.’
‘Aye, right,’ said the mouthpiece. ‘Come oan, ah’ve telt yez. Up the road.’ He jerked his thumb. ‘Move.’
Sammy said something to his friends. They got up quietly. Alex gathered the coins off the table and put them in his pocket.
John felt himself getting stared at.
‘Who’s he?’ said the man.
‘Never you mind,’ said Alex. ‘Who the hell d’ye think ye are, the polis?’
‘Ye’ve heard aboot the curfew,’ said the man. ‘Well, we’re here tae enforce it.’
‘Away hame,’ said Alex, ‘an’ gie us peace.’
John turned back to his jotter. It is easy to hide amongst words, he wrote, especially if you can bury your face in them. When he looked up, the group of men had left. They were following the Albanians. Hector coughed and tried to push himself out of his chair. He had one hand on his stick and the other on the table. When he was sure of himself, he set off slowly towards the door. He shouted over at John. ‘Good night, Teacher,’ he said. ‘See ye the morra.’
John raised his glass. ‘Thanks, Hector,’ he said.
Hector laughed. ‘You an’ yer jotter,’ he said. ‘Ah think you’re a spy!’
John watched him totter across the road. He stopped under a streetlight and leaned against it. He lit a cigarette. A billow of smoke rose straight up and was lost in the darkness. He moved off carefully, his stick making a hollow sound on the pavement.
This story was first published in Drey Magazine (Red Squirrel Press)