I was Nan’s favourite, apparently. That’s what people tell me. She was a blunted battleaxe – a mighty woman curled double by age. Her English was perfect, but she never lost the accent – two parts Greek, one part Italian, one part everything-else-in-between. She’d chew her words, then they’d fall out of her mouth with the emphasis in the wrong places. She always kept her hands under a blanket that she’d knitted herself. Her fingers were swollen and scarred – twisted in all the wrong directions. She told everybody she’d been a nurse in the war. When nobody was looking – when mum was busy fighting with her brother over who would get what – Nan would tell me stories from the old country; Eurydice, Persephone, the twelve labours of Heracles. She told them the best, because she didn’t spare the gory details, and the good guys won in the end.
“The snake,” she said, thi snik, “the snake sank his teeth right into her and pumped her full of poison. The poison filled her up, and made her blood go thin, and it slowly squeezed the life out of her. She screamed and screamed, and Orpheus held her hand but there was nothing he could do to stop it.”
It was okay though, because Orpheus went down into hell and played his lyre, and she followed his music all the way home. She told all the kids these stories, as they clustered around her feet. She would do all the voices, though to be honest they all sounded a bit like various degrees of Nan. My favourite story was about Prometheus, who stole the secret of fire so that all mankind could benefit from it. He got chained to a rock by the gods, and the birds pecked at his guts, but then Heracles came and saved him, and they went off to fight monsters together.
She fell down in the hallway once. Everybody was fighting, but the muffled crack of woman-on-carpet stopped them dead. It was a stroke. The doctor gave her six months, but she took another seven years. It wasn’t the same after that, though. It took her another year to get her speech back properly. She didn’t tell any more stories. The fighting got worse, and her face got stonier as she sat in her little chair and rocked back and forth. There was always a backgammon game half-done next to her chair, but I never saw anybody playing it. I asked her to teach me once when I was younger, but it was too complicated. She kept dropping the pieces.
“Are you from Athens?” I asked. I’d seen pictures of Athens in mum’s books. I imagined a whole city of pristine ruins jutting up from between blue-rooved houses – a place trapped in amber, so rich in history.
Nan shook her head, then smiled. “I am from a city that doesn’t exist,” she said, “in a country that doesn’t exist. I am an Ottoman, from Constantinople. My mother was Greek, my father was Greek, I lived my life in Greece, but my home is gone. It’s lost to history. This happens, when you live long enough. Names change.”
“Are you Turkish, then?”
She laughed at that, and shook her head. “No, no. You shouldn’t say that to a Greek, agoraki mou. I don’t mind, but some of my brothers would be furious.”
“Are the Turks bad men?”
“No, no,”she said. “We’ve fought them a lot. Perhaps they’re bad neighbours, but so are we. We’ve fought a lot of people. You can’t hate forever, or you’ll go mad.”
“Did you fight the Turks?”
She didn’t speak for about twenty seconds.
“Never,” she said. She looked at the backgammon board, then pushed a piece slowly across it. After a few moments, she placed a single gnarled finger against the corner of the board, then turned it around.
“Who did you fight?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Fascists,” she said. “Germans, Greeks, Italians. They wore different uniforms, but they were all the same beneath them. They were scared, and proud, and easily led.”
I didn’t ask any more questions.
“Tell me about Promethius again,” I said. It was perhaps two years before the end. Every passing year, I got bigger and she got smaller. By thirteen, I was taller than her. By fifteen, she almost disappeared into my shadow. The doctors did what they could, but it seemed like medicine wasn’t was keeping her going less than her own strength. She refused to take painkillers, though she screamed in the night. She rarely left her chair.
“He didn’t get free you know,” she said. “I made that up. He’s still on the rock. He’ll always be on the rock. He was a good man, and he was punished for it. That’s how these things go. That’s the stories my people tell – of good men brought low. It helps, you see. We drink and we screw and we shout and we tell stories because it helps us to understand our pain. You want to know about Promethius? He’s a story we tell when we see bad things happen to good people. It hurts, but it healthier than hiding.”
It was the most she’d said in years. I didn’t know what to say. “Nanna,” I said, “you can’t talk about screwing. You’re old.”
She laughed, and the tension fell away. For a second, she seemed much younger. “Of course not, mou,” she said.
She told me stories again, and me only. Not old stories this time, but stories of the war. Of valiant Greeks being run down by panzer tanks, of patching up resistance fighters in dingy alleyways, of German parachutes opening overhead like so many dark blossoms in the spring. She told me the Nazis had placed a bounty on her head – that they’d called her Häkchen -little hook- after the tool she used to suture wounds. The Greek Resistance never left the same mark on the history books that the French did, but they were hunted no less fiercely. She had to run all the way to Cairo before they stopped chasing her.
Nan hated the retirement home. She told me she hated the smell the most – that it reminded her of the field hospital in Cairo where all the dying British soldiers went; all antiseptic fug, and everybody shambling around in a sedative haze. They put her in a room next to a German woman called Anne. Apparently they got on fine, though I never saw them talking. In her last year, she moved back into her old house and hired a full-time nurse. She rarely spoke, or left her bed. The backgammon game sat next to her chair in the lounge, unplayed. I noticed she’d made a few more moves since I last checked, but a thin layer of dust covered the board.
She told me one last story before she died. She was lying in her bed, her eyes sunken in their sockets, her skin like wax paper – you could see all the veins beneath it sluggishly pushing blood around her body, as if the life were slowly being squeezed out of her. The nurse had gone home for the day, and everybody else was asleep. The curtains were open, and a sparrow sat outside, curled up on the windowsill, pressed against the glass. The room stank of antiseptic.
“There was a Turk who lived in a house by the sea near Izmir,” she said, “who had no reason to care whether I lived or died. The Nazis had been passing my description out at every checkpoint. That’s what happened when you worked with the resistance. The Turks had no part in the war, but the reward stood for them as much as it did for any German or Greek. I spoke to him in Turkish, and told him who I was. He’d seen the posters. He needed the money. We drank, and played backgammon. He offered me his attic for one night, but no longer.”
She sat up, and I could see how much such a small movement took out of her.
“Two Gestapo men came in the night,” she said. “They tied him to a chair, and they smashed his kneecaps. I saw it all through a crack in the boards. He told them I had left the night before, so they burnt him with cigarettes. He owed me nothing, but he stuck to his story. They broke three of his fingers, and he did not change his story.”
She lay her head back on the stack of pillows and took a deep breath. Her arthritic hands were curled into claws. The words seem caught inside her, as if they’d been buried so long that they had become a part of her body. She muttered something in a language I didn’t recognise. Her hands shook.
“Then they left,” she said, “and he was fine.”
“Really. The Nazis left, and I fixed him up, and I left the next morning.”
She was so weak, and the every word seemed to cost her. I got up and closed the curtains, leaving the little sparrow out to brave the night wind. Then I left, and let her sleep. That was the last story she ever told me. After she died, the backgammon board stayed on the little table beside her old rocking chair. The game was never finished.