You bought a guitar to punish your ma,
And you didn’t like school, and you know you’re nobody’s fool,
So welcome to the machine.
It was the summer of ’92 and I wanted to buy my first guitar.
There was no reason to ask for money from my father. It was a luxury unaffordable on a policeman’s wage which was the only family income,with three children and a car to maintain. But I was listening to Pink Floyd from dusk till dawn and I should,I should, I SHOULD learn how to play “Wish you were here”
A friend of mine, who wanted to oversize his underbone’s piston to 70mm or something like that, I didn’t understand and I couldn’t care less, hit on the solution.
-Why don’t you come to work in the apricot fields?
-Does it pay well?
He told me the wage and it seemed to me derisively low. Till then, I had never worked; I had just finished the second class of senior high school. Whenever I asked my father for money, his answer was invariably: “Do you think that money grows on trees?”
Well, it didn’t grow on apricot trees, for sure.
As much as I wanted to spend my summer days on the nearby beach, there was the Holy Grail with the strings calling me.
I began making calculations. A month’s work equaled an electric-acoustic Yamaha. Two months and I could buy a Fender Stratocaster (a replica, a Korean model) and a 30 Watt amplifier. It was worth the effort. After all, how laborious could it be picking apricots?
When I told my father, he chortled.
-I give you a week, at best.
Granted, I wasn’t an athletic type, but now I had two reasons to work: The Holy Guitar and knock the props out from under my father.
I called my friend and he said they would pick me up at half past five.
-You mean, in the morning?
-Of course, what did you think?
-You said half past five?
-Half past five in the morning?
I could hear my father guffawing from the kitchen and my mother saying: “oh, poor child, I feel sorry for him”. I couldn’t go back on my words. “With it or on it”, “come and take them-molon labe” and Spartan stuff like that. In most primitive societies, young boys should participate in an initiation ceremony to become members of the adult world. They were flogged and left in the jungle alone to hunt lions.
When the alarm went off, it was pitch-black. I turned it off and turned over “I can do without a guitar”. When I closed my eyes, I saw my father’s face laughing.
I put on the shabby clothes that my mother had found and a jockey hat with the logo of a repair shop splashed over it. I went to the bus stop.
Only an old man was there who might have been waiting for the first bus or he could have Alzheimer’s. He looked at me from head to foot and then asked me if I was Albanian.
My grandmother was Arbëreshë and used to call bread “buke” sometimes. So I was, gene-wise, 1/8 Albanian.
-No, I told him, I’m from Pyrgos.
Had I said that I was from Thessaloniki, he would plunge into a talk about the beautiful Thessaloniki, “the poor mother where the best of men come from” and trite things like that. Had I told him that I am 1/8 Albanian and 1/8 from Asia Minor and perhaps I might have a bit of Venetian blood in my veins, he would have told me to go back to my country.
That’s why I told him that I’m from Pyrgos. It’s verified. When I tell someone this, they keep me at bay, quite convenient at this precise moment. The old man took two steps aside and left me alone with my criminal descent.
Before long I heard destiny approaching like a monster. Sotiris, the friend who dropped the idea for this job, arrived on the scene with a pickup truck.
I don’t know the official name of this vehicle, but we called it a pickup truck. It’s a prehistoric three-wheel, something in between a tractor and a lawn mower and on the rear is attached an open cargo area. It’s used strictly for rural work; no one would ever dare to go for a drink in his pickup truck.
Sotiris, proud as if he was driving an airplane carrier, told me to jump into the back. There sat two more workers. They were Albanians, but I didn’t bother asking them what percentage.
Although it was summertime, it was freezing cold that dawn and I had waived aside my mother’s advice to put a cardigan on. I gritted my teeth and I was patient. And that’s the way the journey to initiation into adulthood begins. Without a cardigan.
From Kiato to Moulki, where the factory was, it was a twenty, maximum thirty, kilometers distance. It took us an hour to get there with the pickup truck, and we had to wait for another half an hour before we were assigned where we should go. Of course we were not getting paid for these hours.
Two more workers jumped up onto the pickup. One compatriot, Albanian, the other Polish. A short ride and we reached the workplace. The rest of the workers jumped off, took their ladders and began climbing the trees. I asked Sotiris what we should do. The foreman heard me and approached coughing.
-What are you? he asked me. Who is this? asked Sotiris.
-A friend of mine.
-A friend of yours? OK, tell him what they are doing or there’ll be effing and blinding first thing in the morning.
Sotiris told me. There were two varieties of apricots; bebekou and diamantopoulou. The first ones were fatter, heavier, more resilient. Diamantopoulou apricots were smaller and delicate. And more delicious too, but this was irrelevant at this very moment.
We should climb up the wooden ladders to the appropriate tree, pick up the ripe apricots and fill our bucket. Then we should go down and drop them in a plastic crate. And up again. When the crate was full, we loaded it onto the cargo area. And so on and so on.
But I had forgotten to tell Sotiris that I was acrophobic. Once I saw the three-meter ladders, I remembered it. And I told him.
-What is that supposed to mean?
-It means that I don’t get on well with heights.
-You’re afraid of heights?
-To be precise I’m not afraid of heights. I’m afraid of being at the edge of a high place. To make it clear, I don’t mind contemplating the view from the seventh floor but I can’t go to the railings and look down.
-You’re afraid of heights.
-In a few words, yes.
-And how are you supposed to pick apricots? What did you think they were, like bushes?
-The apricot trees I had seen were shorter.
Sotiris was desperate. Mr. Kostas, the foreman, was walking around the land and he was surely unaware of the Montessori method nor did he care about my psychological problems.
Finally Sotiris teamed me up with a Romanian who had great climbing skills and he could be an acrobat of the first magnitude or a top-notch thief. He picked the ones which were high – sometimes without using the ladder- and I picked the ones that were growing at a height of less than three meters.
The hours dragged and when the time for our midday snack came I could hardly walk. The rest of the workers gave me sympathizing looks. Mr. Kostas had figured out that there was something wrong with me but more than likely Sotiris had convinced him to leave me alone.
Sotiris didn’t do it because he cared. He, as I was soon to realize, didn’t work like the rest. He was something like the foreman’s pet. He brought empty crates, he took the full ones to the factory, he checked the product and –most of the time- he laughed at the foreman’s vulgar jokes.
He had taken advantage of me but he didn’t want to kick me out. Only three years later, after a good boozing session, he confided me the truth. He had a personal pique against me because I had stolen his girlfriend Katerina. She was a classmate with an Italian diva’s cleavage of Cinecittà. At a party, both sloshed, we had snogged. The next day at school nobody had a recollection of what we had done. But Sotiris had seen and it burnt in his mind.
I had a childish idea – how did it come to me? -that we would be working for eight hours. At four in the afternoon we had been working for ten solid hours and the June sun was still hanging high in the sky. I kept going up and coming down, picking and filling and humping while thinking of Steinbeck and the grapes of wrath.
When I was on the verge of giving up and pulling out, I started singing Wish You Were Here, Vera, and imagining myself playing live with my twelve-string acoustic guitar at Wembley, as a session guitarist, at Floyd’s reunion.
In this way we filled the last truck of the day and Sotiris told us to climb up too. We rode to the package factory crammed between the crates.
I had eaten nothing but a sandwich all day long since I hadn’t listened to my mother who had advised me to take something else with me. On our way to the factory, after an almost 12-hour stretch of work, I had never felt as hungry in my life.
I started eating apricots and truth be told I don’t think I’ll ever eat such luscious fruits in my life, ever. Jerzy, the Polish colleague, was deterring me in broken Greek, like those that Yoda spoke: Don’t eat them. Poison they have.
The insecticide burned my lips a bit but my hunger was such that it didn’t bother me.There was no harm, except that I got the runs.
Till we unloaded, got paid and pulled out, it was seven o’clock. The money in my pocket was not enough to rest my heart. But I went back home with my head held high. For the first time in my life I had earned money using elbow grease.
-Splendid, my father said. Now you can chip in to pay the rent.
I went weak at the knees and stood there gaping at him. Then he started laughing. Was it one of these jokes that only he understood? I’d rather not think about it. But as I lay on my bed, unable to move, I figured out how difficult, harsh, frightening, unimaginable it is to work like this, like a slave, not to buy a guitar but to pay for your food, the rent and the electricity. And I still had no idea about revenues and levies.
Oh, the wonderful innocence of adolescence!
That night I dreamt of the apricots. Not something nightmarish, that is murderous fruits chasing or attacking me, but more Kafkish, more…ancient Greek.
It was a huge apricot tree. I was climbing up a ladder, many storeys, and I was picking fruit. No matter how many I picked, the bucket didn’t fill. And the fruit was getting less on the branches.
Then, as I pulled an overripe bebekou, I heard a big voice from the sky.
-What are you doing? cried the voice.
I looked at the apricot and I realized that I had grabbed my father’s balls. I fell on my knees and asked for forgiveness.
-Curse you forever and ever. Your son will do the same to you.
Then I started falling from the ladder eternally while apricots around were in abundance.
I kept going to work in spite of the nightmares. The most tiring was not the physical fatigue but the psychological exhaustion. I became conscious that I was spending my entire day for a pittance, that had I had a family (with three children and a car) it wouldn’t be enough to buy crispbread.
Until then – granted- I thought money did grow on trees. Hearing the effing and blinding of Mr.Kostas it dawned on me that I should give much more than my time and my body. I should give my whole life, my soul.
There were Albanians and Albanians who killed themselves to put bread in their mouths. There were guys like Sotiris who got by more lazily by kissing the foreman’s ass. There was the foreman whose religion was the extermination of his inferiors. There was the manager who cursed the foreman and then he did not dare to look him in the eyes.
And somewhere there is a factory owner who couldn’t tell the difference between bebekou and diamantopoulou but he had set up the factory with the government’s subsidization (80% European contribution) thanks to his connections with the appropriate party members.
And that’s the way of the world and you strive to buy a Fender Stratocaster or trying to touch Katerina’s boobs.
I tolerated it for ten days, three days longer than my father expected me to. I found a cheapo classical guitar, the cheapest the store had. But it had strings and sound emanated when you hit them.
With the money that was left over, I bought a book with Pink Floyd’s tablatures and I learned how to play Wish You Were Here. I spent the rest of the summer reading, playing the guitar, swimming, drinking beers, kissing girls.
Somewhere left behind, back at home, there were two people who had given their life to bring up three children – and a car.
I don’t know if they fared well, but now I’d rather not talk big.
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Translated by Alexandros Mantas
Edited by Jackie Pert