Dimitrios had said not a word the entire way. He held the huge bundle between his legs and slept with his eyes open. His wife Donna and the two kids had stayed at home with relatives, but Dimitrios had been promised that they, too, would be brought across in less than a month. Nakis, who was dozing beside him, had no family as yet, even though he was more than twenty-five; he had left three sisters and his elderly parents behind in Kastoria. Altogether there were eight of them seated on the truck floor. Four big, black trucks had reached the border, but then they had lost one another again. There were no children on board on any of them; they had said farewell to them two weeks before, at Prespa, near Plovdiv.
Everybody was filthy, crawling with lice, sweaty, their bags were muddy from the long journey. Their food had run out, they had to ration the cigarettes. They tried to get some sleep at night; by day they looked at fields. It wasn’t so bad as countryside goes; the maize grew tall and the grapevines flourished.
Over the last few days it had been raining, hammering incessantly on the awning. The tarpaulin gave a measure of protection, but their clothes had become soaking wet. Narkis had turned his coat inside out and was picking out lice from the seams. Old Mihalis watched and kept on nodding, as if he were taking on the Tatra’s rhythm.
After the rain came a brutal, sweltering heat, so the drying clothes and steaming bodies on the back of the truck had began to stink. They were nearing the unknown destination. The sun shone in sneakily from the side; there were massive lurches on bends in the road. Everybody’s head was dulled by hunger, lack of sleep, and the truck’s exhaust.
It was getting on for noon when they swung into the main square of a small town. They passed a series of signs in an unknown and strange lettering. The Greeks stared in wonder at the butcher’s shops, examined the big baroque church and the impassive, seemingly identical women. The locals crossing the square came to a standstill and eyed the Soviet truck suspiciously: this was the third one already that day. A clutch of dead-beat men were blinking out from under the truck’s awning; no one gave any signal that they should get out.
In the end, a fellow in a green coat came up and spent a long time, with much yelling, to agree something with the truck driver. Neither spoke Russian well, so they supplemented the negotiation with gesticulations and loudness of voice. They came round the steaming truck and beckoned: Quick! quick! Everybody down.
The passengers staggered out, stood about uncertainly with their bundles, then set off after the fellow in the green coat. They crossed the square, walking past women who were staring out of the shops, before they were herded into a gravelled courtyard. A dog at the back barked frenziedly at the newcomers until it was yelled at by a gangling youth, who came out of the house with the steps, after which it growled docilely. It was a mystery what the mutt was doing in a schoolyard, and what had happened to the pupils themselves. In point of fact, all in all, the small town appeared deserted, and the loitering inhabitants looked shiftily, as if they did not even belong there.
“What day is it today?” Joannis asked suddenly.
“Wednesday. Wednesday noon,” responded Marku, who had said nothing at all for days but, brow knitted, was ready to spring into action. He had kept count of the days, the number of border crossings. And then, lips moving, kept a tally of the number of fields of maize and of any remaining tobacco. He totted up in his head how many cousins had been born, including those that had died in infancy.
“It’s now noon on Wednesday,” he repeated gloomily.
Nakis ran back to the gate to check whether the truck had gone, but a bloke in a padded jacket bellowed at him to get back where everyone else was. They left their bags in the yard and filed into a gym. There were already Greeks lying all over the floor, most of them strangers. Mihalis recognised a man with a grizzled beard who was from their part of the world and even older than himself. He was called Zeus, and he had arrived that morning. He told them there had been no chance to wash yet, but water had been doled out. He had no idea if they were going to be able to stay there, or would have to travel further. Most tried to settle themselves so that they would have room for the night as well, but before long a narrow-eyed chap entered and began speaking to them in Hungarian. The bloke in the padded jacket had disappeared in the meantime.
No one understood what was wanted of them, and they looked in bewilderment at the broad face of the chap, who must have been in his forties. His voice was more a touch on the loud side, rather than assertive, but all the starved travellers picked up was a note of irritation. He spoke at length, in a snappish tone, then gestured that they were to line up. They clambered to their feet, thinking, well that’s a start, the new arrivals will now get some water. The whole team was standing there.
The chap guided them across into a long, empty concrete room, one wall of which was painted with dancing schoolgirls in skirts and swaying peasant boys. In the middle was a line of trestle table, pulled together lengthways, but with no tablecloths on them.
They sat down on the rows of benches and took their caps off.
Nothing happened. They sat there, clutching their caps, stealing glances towards the kitchen. From time to time, one or another startled, white-coated woman would look out from behind the frosted glass window, but no one put in an appearance. After they had been sitting like that for around half an hour, and still no water, Marku got to his feet and set off towards the door. His demeanour was not threatening, bur Dimitrios grabbed him by the arm and looked straight in his eyes. Marku resumed his place without saying a word; everybody just stared at the door.
Soon a short, freckle-faced woman appeared and, at intervals along the trestle, set out plastic jugs with spouts, which contained a red liquid. She still did not bring any mugs. Mihalis smelled it and said something. A murmur ran through the waiting men.
“It’s not wine.”
Meanwhile coloured plastic beakers also materialised, so they clumsily started to drink up the raspberry cordial.
It was watery and had an odd taste, but it did at least slake their thirst a bit. A lot of them also ran in some water from the tap by the wall. Meanwhile a further uncomfortable quarter of an hour passed by, then a skinny woman wearing a headscarf appeared and set down plastic plates and forks along the table. She did not look up or speak to anyone; if she could not find room at a place, she slapped the eating implements down in the middle of the table, together with a paper serviette. Not long after that, the freckly woman from before came in with a plump, elderly dinner lady: they shuffled out, carrying a colossal aluminium pan. Then another. They set these down at opposite ends of the trestle.
The men began to stir as they waited for their helping. The two women did not serve them but instead disappeared behind the white door and watched from there at what the guests would do. They, for their part, waited a bit longer, then Nakis got up and took a look in one of the vessels.
Two of them, one at each end, dished out. First to the older ones, then to the rest. They were just about to tuck in when the skinny woman in the headscarf who had brought out the plates appeared again. She was holding two heaped dishes, which she plonked down at the top and bottom ends of the trestle, then stomped back, She was wearing wooden sandals and white ankle socks, rather like nurses do. In the dishes there was a greyish powder, but it was unclear what it was for.
A few began to eat the pasta, while others waited for the meat to come. Nakis looked at the dish. He crumbled a little of the powder between his fingers.
“No doubt that’ll be for washing the plates up later,” Marku said.
Dimitrios, at the other end, leant over the dish and took a sniff.
“Earth,” he declared sternly.
By the time the freckly woman and the one wearing the headscarf came out together Jannis had devoured pretty well all of his noodles. The freckly, ruddy-faced one shifted her feet while the taller one started to explain something in a loud voice, as if she were a bit angry. She pointed at the dishes and kept repeating a single word, then making expansive movements with one arm, as if she were trying to give the guests a good dusting down. The men listened uneasily and looked helplessly at each other. The woman nodded, then unexpectedly set off and, before they could hold their hands protectively over their plate, started to sprinkle the dirty powder on the noodles. The freckly woman did the same on the other side, and they had soon done it with all of them. The two briefly looked at each other, as if they had carried out an order, then tramped back again.
There was silence for a few seconds before Dimitrios spoke.
“They sprinkled earth on it!”
“They sprinkled earth on it so we would not be able to eat it”—that was what ran up and down the table.
Marku threw down his fork and glowered angrily in front of him; the others tended more just to gaze in dismay at their portions.
“They don’t want us to stay,” Joannis exclaimed. “They’re going to contaminate our food.”
Dimitrios was so hungry that he was prepared to eat the ribbons of pasta along with the earth, but he restrained himself, waiting to see what the others decided.
“Let’s get up and go!” Nakis slipped his cap onto the table.
The idea was not welcomed by all; they had not had anything warm to eat for days.
In the end, old Zeus got to his feet, picked up his plate and, with a dignified, erect bearing, set off along the wall. Everyone thought that he would tip the lot out somewhere, or simply take it to give back to the women.
But no, he stood at the enamelled tap on the wall and, placing one large, wrinkled hand over the plate, proceeded to wash the noodles. The black specks of earth were rinsed off, and soon all that was left were the now sodden ribbons of pasta. The rest of the Greeks thereupon stood up, each in turn, and went over to the tap to rinse their portion. Back held straight, they then went back to their place. The kitchen staff watched, whispering to each other; none of them dared show their face.
The Greeks ate, then conferred. As the pains of hunger eased, their resentment grew. They got up and in silence trooped into the gym. By the time the bloke in the padded jacket had arrived then had lined up in the yard, menacingly, fired up. One of the plump dinner ladies rushed out, dragged in the bloke in the padded jacket and agitatedly showed him the sink in the dining room.
It was full of fallen strips of noodles, while the waste pipe, seemingly clogged with gooey ashes, was completely blocked by milled poppyseed.