“May the god of Rock be with you.” I could have sworn that’s I heard. The service had just ended. Was it one of those delusions that afflict madmen before they put them in a straitjacket? I buttoned up. A monk from the very heart of Mount Athos and Rock? It didn’t fit.
He sensed, however, the surprise and stooped. He whispered to me through his beard exactly the same words : “ May the god of Rock be with you, brother”, and thrust some holy bread into my hand. So many years of fasting and prayer must have given him the divine gift of telepathy, I thought. He perceived that I was a Doubting Thomas, but also one of the few old rock fans. He would also known about my shop, where I sold musical instruments, because as I turned to leave, bewildered, he tugged at my sleeve:“I’ll come by your shop one day. Expect me. And brother …,” he continued, virtually reeling it off, “venerate the Lord with all your soul and admire his priests.”
April, 1998, drowned in fragrance. That month I spent three days with Yiorgis, the singer of plaintive love-songs, shut away from the world in the Great Lavra Monastery. Each of us was seeking his own redemption. I was looking for a way out from the caprice that everything is paid for here and he, love struck, sought release from the darts of love. They never stopped pursuing him, even though he exorcised them day and night on the stage of notorious night clubs.
A lot of water had flowed under the bridge since then. Till yesterday, when that imp in a cassock slipped into the shop and stirred me up. At first I thought he had come in to bless the place, but the calendar on the wall loudly protested that it was not Epiphany and I said that it was rather for a donation. At that time the Bishopric had ordered a church to be built right next to the municipal old people’s home, so that our parish, too, would have a steady income. If only from funerals. A bad year then, the only things that maintained their prices were the fast-food places and funerals. Funeral costs especially had gone up so much that you thought seriously about “migrating”. They must be short of funds, I suspected. That’s why they were sending priests round to collect. They were more convincing, they inspired people.
Various people came into the shop. I had dealings with all and sundry, from pupils and teachers to pimps and cabaret owners. But never with a priest. And while I waited for him behind the counter, having already put on the smile that sells, he ignored me and went straight to the instruments.
He began to examine them one by one, like a professional musician, starting with the wind instruments. He hugged the big drum just like you hug a crying baby, but he didn’t play it. He went to the plump tuba, took it in his hands, sat on a stool, held it firmly between his knees and put his mouth over the cupped mouthpiece. He blew once or twice and everything around woke up, shaking en masse like an earthquake. He removed his lips, listened for a moment to the sweet death of the vibrations and picked up the trombone. He stroked it, polished it with his elbows and, having wiped the mouthpiece, brought it to his lips. He took a deep breath, puffed out his cheeks and then, with all his strength, blew the kiss of life into the instrument’s larynx, which shrieked like an elephant wakened prematurely.
Next he went to the guitars. He picked up first the classical guitar and then I noticed that he clung more to the electric guitar, the Stratocaster. He looked at it without speaking and seemed to be giving it some explanation or asking forgiveness for having done something involuntarily to hurt it. However he adjusted the power regulators and began to caress it, very gently at first, and then to strum, flay the strings passionately and torture it, make it unbelievably angry, I could feel it in its protests that pierced my eardrums. Suddenly he stopped. Like a sinner, he seemed to repent. He seemed to have committed an outrage.
He ran his hand over the other stringed instruments as well, went to the back, on the right where I had parked the drums, and braked sharply. He rolled up his sleeves, gathered up his cassock in his right hand, pulled it up over his knees and jumping like a gazelle, was suspended for a moment in the air and then landed on the revolving stool, where he balanced without supporting himself anywhere! He immediately put his hand under his cassock and produced the two batons with the nipples at the end, which all drummers have. He discharged two or three salvos on the small drums, at the same time kicking the boot-drum non-stop, and, striking the bronze cymbals- he made them all shriek together like hoarse jackdaws. He quietened the birds down, pressing on them gently with the wooden drumsticks until they fell silent, and immediately jumped down.
He came towards me as spry as a cockerel. He drew near and those bright, eternally moist eyes, with the aquiline nose below, rose up out of the past. Closer, and there stirred within me April and Mount Athos, Holy Communion and Dismissal, holy bread and Rock. There was the Dustin Hoffman walk and I was certain: it was Eftychios! The musical ear from the Lyceum, where we swapped records and porn magazines at break time. In fact I had not seen him for more than ten years.
A young hopeful, with a bright future, he was off to university in Athens. But alas! Consorting with junkies and heavy metal fans, he finished up a drug addict, until one day the phone rang tearfully: Eftychios was in the intensive care unit. They had found him half-drowned, frothing at the mouth, his sleeve rolled up and the syringe in his vein while Deep Purple and the Highway Star were screeching away on the record player.
He pulled through in the nick of time however and they sent him to Switzerland. He was detoxed and returned to us. Back to his roots, here where everything begins for everyone: in the neighbourhood. Clean, completely clean, his deliverance created a stir, but Rock, Rock. Rock was second nature to him, the sound equivalent of oxygen, god and opium together. So you can understand when he was younger and wanted to be believed about something extreme or improbable, he swore by the god of Rock. He would raise the headphones of his Walkman for a moment and say, “On my oath, may the god of Rock bring down fire and burn me if I am lying,” and then plug the headphones back in his ears.
This music continued, even after Switzerland, to replenish the Lord knows how many streams in the abyss of his soul. But while he imitated wonderfully the distinctive styles of the masters – and especially that of Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin – he would never listen to a note from Deep Purple. Not even a poster!
Only a few months after his return, his parents appointed a well-known confessor of the parish to take him under his wing. Thus he was slowly led into the worlds of aspiration and hope. He abandoned the futility of realism and logic. He devoted himself to the lives of the Saints, the Gospels and first hand accounts of miracles and, on the quiet, he calmed down, acquired an air of live and let live, adapted himself to everyone and everything.
Sometimes, when he had had enough of saints, he would come down here. At that time we were living in Victor Hugo Street, near Diomedes’ amusement arcade. The children would immediately abandon the electronic games and, knowing his hatred of Deep Purple, begin to tease him. They asked him, supposedly, about news of the group and he swelled with anger. He went red in the face but controlled himself. He was St Neophytos the Recluse himself in the face of hordes of female temptations. “Now listen, kids”, he told them, “I was born a Rocker and Rocker I will die, but don’t remind me of Deep Purple because I die, that syringe wakes up and rolls up my sleeve, please, God forbid!”
The following year he vanished. They said he had “departed” for Mount Athos, where he had become a monk, leaving us sinners behind to wrestle with the thousand and two Beelzebubs in disguise in the city.
He introduced himself. “Father Ephraim, Eftychios to the world.” When he saw that I remembered him his face lit up! Just as it had done in the old days when he went crazy every time he saw a new record by Pink Floyd. I offered him some fruit-juice. He refused it and, straightaway lighting a cigarette, asked for coffee. “I haven’t got rid of the habit of smoking yet,” he told me, “but I’ll give it up, you’ll see. You remember the drugs back then, eh? I’ll give this a kick in the balls too, damn it.”
And he had remained faithful to something else as well: the Walkman. He pulled it reverently, like an amulet, out of its homemade case which he had at his waist and showed it to me proudly, together with the headphones. “There, when I am sometimes overcome with homesickness and loneliness or even when I feel cunning spirits invading my cell, I put it on full blast, wear the headphones tightly and then I don’t hear the voice of the devil, or that of a man either. I hear Rock and only Rock. When the music stops, I take off the headphones and the silence around me tells me I am safe now and I’m not afraid of anyone.”
His face suddenly clouded over. There was something he wanted to tell me. He opened his mouth and shut it again, opened it, shut it, opened it, shut it. He couldn’t hold back anymore. “You know…the Abbot of the monastery, that blockhead, learnt about the Walkman and got the idea into his head that when you play the cassettes backwards you hear messages from the devil. If only I had an electric guitar…”.
He explained to me that he had a device for not driving the prospective saints mad: he would “graft” the guitar with a special silencer programme, which also functioned on ordinary batteries. An English electronics technician had given it to him when he had been at the monastery last year, pursued by a nasty divorce. He too was a Rock fanatic. He had made a chip with crazy software which allowed you to enjoy the sobbing strings with special headphones, while those around you tore their hair when they saw you in motion and couldn’t hear a sound themselves!
In homage to those old swapping sessions at break-time I gave him the Strat guitar and, full of emotion, he fell into my arms. We remained there, lost in each other’s bosom, for a couple of minutes. The cassock, which half covered me, gave off a whiff of faith, but then he detached himself like a wicked thought and, with the feet of Dustin Hoffman, darted out into the street. With the guitar under his cassock, he vanished. I didn’t see him again.
The day before yesterday Yiorgis came by the shop and told me a strange tale about the figure of a monk that startles visitors to the Great Lavra Monastery at dusk. He walks on the edge of the precipitous cliffs, they say, and, stepping on the rocks in a way to be envied, he appears to be playing an electric guitar very skilfully. However, the strangest thing is that though he appears to be playing perfectly, no one can hear a thing! Most likely it is a ghost.
That’s what Yiorgis told me, the unrequited lover who had been once more to Mount Athos without me, in a last attempt to rid himself of the demons of love. An artist and sentimentalist, he believes strongly in souls and ghosts.
Translated by Christine Georgiades.
* From “TIPOTA, TIPOTA” (Nothing, nothing, 2003)