Paul and Bobbie didn’t quite fit in the Garden. When I saw them coming and sitting the first time, I wondered what could they possibly want to do at the bar. They could be my grandfather and my grandmother – or should I say my grand-grandfather and my grand-grandmother.
It was early in the afternoon, I had just opened and Themis the waitress hadn’t come yet. So I went over to take their order, even though something told me that they believed it was the appropriate place to enjoy their ice-cream or almond cake (the all-time favourite pastry shop sweet for those who were born before television was invented).
From a closer look, they looked even older. They were diminutive like goblins and their hair were so white that an Eskimo would describe as: “Blinding white of the snow that no polar bear has ever pissed on it”
Their face was wrinkled. Their eyes were wet and red. Their hands – I noticed when I served them – were crooked and cumbersome. Their moves were desperately slow, they reminded me of a dawdling animal of the Amazon rainforest which is called sloth, if I’m not mistaken.
I smiled at them and told them that they were in a bar.
“The ice-cream shop is on the other side of the fence”, I said and I was about to go back.
“Do you speak French?” asked me Paul – in French.
It was three years ago that I took private French lessons with Genoveva. I called her and asked her if she could give me lessons.
“Are you a student?” she had asked me.
“No, I work here on the island as a waiter, barman, anything.”
“I go it. The lessons would be useful to become better at your work”
“No!” I said. (How could it be possible to learn French to improve my waiter-skills)
“No, I want to learn French in order to…”. I faltered . “…in order to read The Flowers of Evil from the original.”
A pause. Communication breakdown, it’s always the same.
“You know” said Genoveva that’s a tall order but we can give it a shot.”
I took lessons for three years before I leave to go to France. I failed to get a degree but yes, I did read Baudelaire, painstakingly and with the dictionary by my side.
They turned out to be very helpful for sure, when I met Paul and Bobbie.
“A little” I told Paul. This is a bar, brasserie. You can find ice-cream outside, where the chairs are.
“Lovely music” Bobbie told me in Greek.
I became all ears and I figured out the reason the oldsters had come to the Garden. Early in the afternoon, before Nick started playing rock, I was listening to whatever CD I felt like. That day I was listening to one with the great ladies of jazz. When Bobbie told me that she liked the music that was playing, it was the moment that Nina Simone was singing Gershvin’s “I loves you Porgy”.
“It’s Nina Simone” I informed them.
“We do know that” said Bobbie and laughed. “But in this recording her voice sounds somewhat broken. She could do better when she was young. And listening her singing live is something totally different.”
She looked at Paul and he said: “Wonderful Simone, the high priestess.”
“Have you seen her live? When?”
“Oh, a long time ago”, said Bobbie. “She went through France and she was playing in a small boite. She hadn’t become famous yet. It was just her and her piano. She was quite known but not mainstream. Do you remember, Paul?”
He nodded and began talking about Simone, mixing Greek and French. When he finished, I didn’t know what to say. The oldsters had deeper knowledge of jazz than me. Once more, youth’s arrogance was proved wrong.
“Would you like something to drink?” I asked to camouflage my embarrassment.
It would be wildly impressive if they asked for malt whiskey and yellow tequila straight up. But let us not blow this out of proportion, my fellow young men. They asked for tea and decafeine coffee and saccharin instead of sugar. I served them and they drank them singing along some lyrics and took their leave, before the night and rock begin.
The next day I saw them around the same time heading for the Garden. Since they turned the corner until they check in and take a seat, there was plenty of time to wash the glasses that waited patiently since yesterday and have a cigar. Before I go to their table, I put a Django Reinhardt CD, the guitarist with three functional fingers only.
“Way to go!” said Paul from a distance, “the Romani who redefined jazz”.
“I bet you’ve seen him playing live too” I told them when I got close to them.
“Oh yes” said Paul. “Many times. With Grappelli’s fabulous violin and his quintet. They were playing at the Hot Club before the war broke out. You were very young then”, he told Bobbie holding her hand. “Your parents would never allow you to set foot in such infamous places.”
“They didn’t” said Bobbie and her eyes twinkled with laughter.
“What?” said Paul. “Have you ever been in Hot Club?”
“Just once” said Bobbie, like a student that was caught red-handed bunking off.
But she buckled under Paul’s inquisitive look and confessed:
“All right. I’ve been there twice or thrice. “Baro, the second guitarist, used to flirt with me.”
“The pedophile!” exclaimed Paul. “How many more secrets are you keeping? Do you have other surprises? If it wasn’t for me, you would have wound up in cabarets.”
“Don’t make too much of it”, said Bobbie.
Paul gave me a conspirative look, winking at me: “A woman with a past is just like the aged wine. You’ve got to be an experienced drinker to fully relish it.”
Bobbie cuffed him lightly on the fingers to chide him. I was lost for words. I felt like I was before two newlyweds or –more accurately – two pipsqueaks, head over heels in love.
Love is a commonly accepted derangement.
“Shall I get you the usual?”I asked.
«The usual” said Paul. “But this time bring us sugar. She’s a fatal woman.”
As I was walking away, I heard Bobbie saying something and the last words were “femme fatale”.
I made their beverages while I was whistling Reinhardt’s “Tears”. The oldsters had made my day. When I served them, I asked if I could sit down with them. They were delighted so I fetched my coffee – it was too early for drinks.
“Here is a good chance”, I thought to myself, “to hear a love story”.
I am a man with an innocent face. No innocent heart, neither angelic face. I just look gentle – not stupid, for Christ’s sake! That was convenient for as long as I was working at the bar, because the clients plunged into confessions.
Perhaps I’m addicted – after my tenure behind the bar – to hearing stories from strangers. It’s not soul-destroying, not by a long chalk, since the narrator expects nothing else from you but listening to them; or, at least, pretending doing so.
Three rules make a good barman: Never raise any objections, never doubt about what you hear, you never chip in your own story and when they tell you jokes you are bound to laugh. The latter is not a rule, but it really helps.
Many of the stories that I heard were so boring that I could hardly suppress my yawns. In such cases, the drink is coming to the rescue. Because as the suicide poet of Preveza used to say: “Everything looks gold when I look through a glass of retsina.
When I heard Paul and Bobbie talking, I needed no drink. It’s so nice to hear old people recounting. I don’t think it has to do with some kind of wisdom that old people are supposed to attain. The biggest hogwash has been uttered by old people. But they have a lot of experiences and should you bump into the right ones, you’d better button it and listen.
Old people are fossilized in the past. It is as if their head is chock-full (a sign “no vacancy” flashes on and off) and therefore every stimuli awakes a past experience. Perhaps they do it unconsciously to figure out their past, their life, as they are heading to the end.
The children don’t have a past, nor do they spare a thought about the future. They live just for an ice cream cone, a game with their friends, a caress from their mother.
The young ones think more about the future. They make big dreams of grandeur and ardent loves, wealth and marriages, glory and posthumous fame.
The middle-aged simply survive.
The old ones don’t really care about their future (that’s why they vote as conservatively as they can). They go to church wagering on immortality, that’s their future. And what their present is? Medicines, poor memory and incontinence, television and descendants that remember them only during Christmas and Easter. But their past…
When somebody keeps saying: “Do you remember when…”, well, that man is getting much too old.
Therefore, I couldn’t ask Paul and Bobbie about their future plans. After all, my interest was to hear stories about mythical times, from some people who were eye (and ear) witnesses.
“When you were born?” asked the shameless barman, starting the interview.
“I was born fifteen years before Billy Holiday recorded her first song. Shortly after the first war”, said Paul and added: “Don’t ask when the lady was born.”
“Where did you learn Greek?”, was the second question.
“Here” said Bobbie. “We came to Greece for the first time…fifty years ago? Back then, all the French were dancing sirtaki. “Zorba the Greek” was our favourite film. Since then, we come here almost every year.”
“What kind of work…” I began but then trailed off. Whatever they were doing, it must have been such a long time since they were retired, that it should mean nothing to them anymore.
“We were teachers” said Bobbie.
Well, it did mean something after all. There are jobs that the only benefits you get from are the wage and the pension. But there are others that you’re given in return much more than this, perhaps because you give much more too.
“How did you meet each other?” I asked then and it was obvious that I had found a vein of a pure gold past. That was the right question.
Paul and Bobbie looked each other and began bouncing off questions when was the first time they set eyes upon each other.
“I remember” said Paul. “You were frosh. You had just entered. All of my classmates had eyes only for Véronique, this foxy with the big” (he made a gesture for boobs) “but I-”
“So, you remember her name” said Bobbie.
“No! Well, yes, but as a female to avoid”, Paul excused himself.
“Yes, I believe you” said Bobbie.
“But they were enormous!” said Paul trying to make fun of it and when he realized that his joke didn’t go across, he added: “I loved only you.”
“At least mine were up to the mark for as long as…” said Bobbie looking at Paul’s crotch, where surely nothing was “up” anymore.
Paul gave a laugh and kissed her. Then he told me: “Know one thing: Women should always have the final word. This is the only way a discussion comes to an end in a marriage.”
“Why did you fall in love with each other?” I asked them before they start recalling unsettling stories with aspiring suitors and busty floozies.
“What do you mean?” said Bobbie.
“Why did we fall in love?” asked Paul. “It is just like asking why the rain comes from the sky. We fell in love with each other because there could be no other way.”
The CD was over and I asked them what they would like to hear.
“Georges Brassens” said Paul and Bobbie nodded her approval. “His drunken voice with be in perfect accord under this grape arbor.”
“The only French I have is Serge Gainsbourg” I told them.
“That will do”, said Paul and whispered something in Bobbie’s ear.
Bobbie said “Yes” with a smile, as if saying “I remember!”
I went over to change the music and I was observing them caressing each other behind the fountain. I was wondering, how come two people stay together for such a long time. To be in love for such a long time. They surely went through hard times. Perhaps someone Véronique with a voluptuous cleavage could be the cause for one of them; or it could be someone Baro with a gypsy heart.
Or it could be the routine, the fatigue, the time itself that walks all over you unmercifully, flattening boobs, penises and dreams.
When I went back to their table I asked them which was the toughest moment they dealt with, all this time. How indiscreet can a barman get?
Bobbie looked at Paul. He scratched his nearly bold head (with sparse dots of snow that no polar bear has ever pissed on them).
“I didn’t make it to go and fight”, he said finally. “Before we know it, the Nazis set foot in Paris. It was the worst thing I’ve ever set my eyes on, seeing those bastards parade beneath the Arc of Triumph. I should have joined the partisans, that’s how I was feeling then, but I didn’t. Can’t tell why. Maybe because I didn’t believe it so much. We learned how to live under occupation but we never got used to it. We waited till the right time had come and that was the Invasion. We lived in Normandy back then. Do you remember honey? We had a little house in the fields and we were living there as if we didn’t care what was going on to the rest of the world. Someone came and told me about the invasion. He told me that the allies were in need of every help available. I made my mind on the spot. I would go and fight.”
Bobbie was staring at him, perhaps angrily.
“I didn’t ask you about that, I know…”, he told her. “But my duty, as a man…”
“The duty”, said Bobbie. “A man’s duty is his family.”
“I remember the day I left” said Paul to fend off the attack. “It was the day before D-Day. I had awoken in the middle of the night. I guess I couldn’t sleep. I got out of bed as silently as I could not to wake Bobbie up.”
“I wasn’t sleeping either”, she said. “How could I? I saw him getting dressed in the semidarkness and I was praying that this was a dream; to wake up in the morning and see him by my side. That there was no war, no invasion. That he wouldn’t go.”
“I should go” Paul told her. “We were fighting for our freedom. What is more important than freedom?”
“Love” said Bobbie. “Life.”
“That’s why women can’t be good soldiers”, said Paul to me.
I didn’t say a word. I was just listening.
“What had you made me for breakfast? Do you remember?” he asked her.
“Eggs. I do remember.”
“Yes! Eggs. While I was eating them I couldn’t help thinking that they could be my last. This might be the most delicious food I’ve ever eaten.”
“Was it the eggs that you were thinking?”
“I couldn’t hug you” Paul told her. “I was scared. I didn’t want you to understand how much I was afraid.”
“I was afraid even more. That you might never come back.”
“Do you remember what promise I gave to you?”
“You had said that you would come back, no matter what would happen.”
“I said so. And I believed it, too. I would come back, even back from the grave.”
“Many believed so, but they didn’t.”
“I was sure.”
“There were too.”
“When I was far enough away, I shouted you that I love you. I did so, I talked to you when I was far from you, because I was afraid that otherwise I couldn’t go. Because I was young and you had blond hair. Your eyes were shining and your dress was waving. And I shouted: I love you! And I set off for the big day. And you were laughing.”
“I was crying! How could you say that I was laughing?”
“You were laughing and you loved me and you knew that we would stay together for fifty years.
“If I knew it, I wouldn’t cry.”
“You knew that our days would be green, just like the grass of that hill.”
“I feared that my days would be black.”
“You knew that the sun would light up our love, our children, you knew that I would come back, Bobbie you knew that I loved you, Bobbie, and I did, Bobbie, and I still love you and forever I will.”
They hugged each other and I got up to go back to the bar because something had stuck in my eye – both of them. They were in each other hands for a long time and then they kept talking, face to face.
When they called me to pay they told me that it was their last day they would be on the island. They would see me again the next year.
“If I’m here” I told them with a smile, hoping for something new, a love perhaps.
They looked back at me and they seemed saddened. I didn’t understand why, but a dream gave me the answer.
That night I dreamt that Bobbie had come to the Garden alone. I asked her where Paul was. She was trying to smile, but gave no answer.
Then I saw her standing on the hills of Normandy. The grass was green and the sun was shining and the sea was shining and her eyes were shining. And Bobbie was blonde and young and her dress was waving. She was waiting for Paul to come back.
He had promised her that he would come back. He had told her that they would grow old together. He was kissing her eyes and grabbing her waist and he was promising that he would come back.
In my dream, he did come back. But when he did, everything began to fade away. Bobbie’s hair turned white and her skin opaque. Paul wasn’t as strong as the day that he left. His teeth were whiter than when he was young but they were not real. They had children and they aged also so fast. Some of them passed away.
The grass was still green and the sun was shining as before. The sea was just the same, too. But where he was to whisper “Bobbie, Bobbie, I love you.”
Paul had passed on. Not at the invasion. He died sixty years later. And Bobbie had come to the Garden alone. And Bobbie was listening to Billie Holiday on her own, singing: “I want to stay here with you forever I’ve got my man.”
I got up to have a glass of water and vowed: “If I were a god, I would kill Paul and Bobbie, and every other couple that loved each other so much, together.
Then I slept, peaceful, as a god.