Thanos used to mock Trachoni. Everybody did. He would tease Roxani in class, when they sat side-by-side in Maths and he twiddled his compass on the desk, made jokes about her village being full of Mafiosi. Roxani would roll her eyes at the tired gag but the smile would hang on her lips for a few more seconds all the same. Lips full as peppers. On lunch breaks the other guys would mime pounding her against a wall as they smoked outside, and Thanos would laugh that donkey laugh of his out of duty. But then the noise of his laugh, and the thought of her face, would knock him back down on his knees, and he’d shut his mouth again.
Every time he flicked his knife to a tourist on the seafront, Roxani would surface in his mind. It was as if she was watching from beyond the palm trees, with a raised eyebrow and that pepper-lipped smile.
Now, as if God was real and laughing at him, his parents were driving him to the mafioso village. To be cured. The embarrassment clogged up his throat.
Back to rock bottom again,
I’ll roam all night with the bad kids…
Anna Vissi’s laments filled the car as his mother turned the volume up. On the other side of the window, the tips of the cypress trees met five metres above the road, vehicles running between them like children at the feet of kissing relatives. Only fifteen minutes ‘til God from here. The Holy House would sort him out.
Thanos watched the backs of his parents’ heads. His mother’s was rigid, moved only to the potholes his father seemed hell-bent on hitting. To her, Thanos was forever the boy in yellow shorts who drank milk and rose cordial from a beaker. He couldn’t ever be a teen on a Yamaha bike, scouring the seafront for British tourists to mug at knifepoint. She had a mole on the back of her sun-baked neck, exactly like his. Maybe the theft started there; first genetics, then the red-faced Brits. He wondered if she’d ever forgive him.
His father’s neck was hairy. Despite the heat coagulating in the red Toyota, they were thankfully spared the rest of his body. No TV to wobble towards in Y-fronts here, no motorbike to fix outside on the pavement. Instead the grey polo shirt meant he’d doused himself in Joop! as though he didn’t have a wife already. The back of his head was fat and sturdy. It said he was the bigger man. Two sons in the army, but this third one, the loser, had to get in trouble with the law. A waster without a girlfriend. Thanos’ being diagnosed with diabetes was worse than a death in the family. It meant exclusion from army conscription, it meant feminising his diet. His father would glare at him across the dinner table, and it was Thanos who’d avert his gaze when their eyes met.
On that very road outside the car, years before, an old refugee dropped beneath a tree and succumbed to cancer. That lady was strong, walking to no home with a failing liver. Now there wasn’t even a war, but Thanos’ brothers were being treated like heroes just for being forced into national service. Thanos knew they only sat around in the barracks smoking weed, having phone sex with their girlfriends, putting the girls on speakerphone for the other guys to snicker at. If the Turks attacked again, those guys would be dead on a battlefield in seconds.
“Thanos, stop that!” his mother snapped when he exhaled.
So he shut his mouth. It was only a sigh. But since the arrest, his mother had started taking everything he did as an offence to society. Funny, since her cop brother pulled the strings to keep him from going to jail at her request. When they settled down to the news one night as a family, eating watermelon and halloumi off the knife, and heard the account of the Holy House of Trachoni for the very first time, it seemed God had answered his mother’s prayers. From then on, the Holy House was everywhere; in magazines, in newspapers, on people’s mouths – it was the miracle the island had been waiting for.
Thanos smudged the car window and stared at his skinny wrists, which no amount of lamb could fatten. Roxani would never want someone like him, someone who’d stolen his brothers’ black olive eyes and strained them to colourless pips. He wondered if he’d see her today, in her village. In the Holy House. The house of an ex-con where God had decided one night to doodle on the walls. In fucking Trachoni.
But his mouth stayed shut. And his mother turned up the air con.
As they entered the village, it was easy to tell which the Holy House was. What was once a dull cube in a cracked landscape now throbbed with activity. People poured in and out of the place as though Jesus himself was sitting inside it, kissing them one by one on the forehead.
They managed to park somewhere eventually, his dad’s Toyota between two Mercedes. Guys in Adidas tank tops, men with white shirts parted to reveal bleached-out chest hair on sun-grilled skin, sun hats, sunglasses, car shades, women with gold earrings, widows in black, mothers with three copper children, D&G shorts and gold crucifixes… His eyes, watering from the light, flicked the other way. Nothing but dirt tracks and the ageing bungalows squatting over them. In Trachoni, you would think the Turks had only just invaded.
“Thano mou, your dad wants something to eat.”
“I’ll wait here.”
“Don’t you want food?”
He went to where there were fewer people, and came upon a small, man-made cave. He followed the stony path down to a makeshift church, like the kind people snuck off to in the days of the Ottomans. There were icons and candles in tin foil, and only two other people there. One was dressed in black, with dark curls tied at the back of his head. A priest. Thanos walked away, as quietly as possible.
Back in the noise of the crowds buying souvenirs and praying, Thanos glared at the house. So this was where Joseph and Mary had chosen to end their second donkey ride. This plain lump with a veranda, where an ex-con sat with his family, laughing and eating melon. This white block behind the vans selling ice cream, icons and hot dogs. Shoes crunched the dirt and the scent of onions mingled with candle wax. Wax dripped onto tin foil. Tin foil glinted. It was like Sundays with his grandma, when she’d tell him about the archangel who came with a scythe to chop the heads off children who didn’t behave.
In the throng he spotted his mother’s white trousers. They spread at the top, giving her entire lower half the shape of a parsnip. If he could somehow take that weight for his wrists… He studied her as she fought a bunch of people for the hot dog seller’s attention and won. The woman kissed her crucifix after every meal, but called every maid a Filipino, regardless of where they were from. “Filippineza,” she would sneer – as though the word itself needed Dettol.
His dad stood by a double cabin, patting someone’s bloodhound. He could dip a blackcap in his gullet and pull out a skeleton.
Thanos trudged to the Holy House.
Inside, the rooms were cool. Colours shifted in patchy tones until his eyes adjusted. First came the light bulb dangling from the ceiling. Next was a girl with curly black hair holding her grandma’s hand. A flurry of hands crossed the air, made crosses against bodies. Was there even any furniture in this house, or just a congregation? He couldn’t tell.
Thanos searched for Roxani, who belonged in that shitty village about as much as he did. He pictured her face, her left hand scribbling Garbage lyrics in the back of her notepad. He shut his eyes and prayed for her to show. She didn’t.
His mother whispered: “Thano mou, aren’t you even looking at the drawings?”
It dawned on him then how hushed the house was; how dark the openings to its corridors. Without the gold leaf of icons, without the drone of a priest’s chant, he’d forgotten he was in a House of God. He turned to a wall, where his eyes stumbled on a donkey; a creamy blob that appeared to emanate from the plaster. One evening, this thing had transpired. A man, the ex-con sitting outside, alleged to have heard a knock at the door. On opening it and seeing no-one outside, he stepped back into the house to find this creamy donkey heading for Bethlehem on his wall. That was the story, told a million times by everyone he knew. But this was no donkey. It was too bloated, too full of sympathy pains for the virgin saint on its back. If God had chosen a house in the armpit of Cyprus to be His canvas, He should have taken art lessons first.
Thanos’ parents prayed to the Miracle Drawings. His mother’s eyes closed at the sight of Jesus’ face, a mere suggestion on the plaster before her. A simple pale cross had shrunk his father’s shoulders. No-one seemed to be talking, yet murmurs seeped through the walls, the bodies, the faces around him. Thanos’ blood pumped hard through his veins. It was a pain, akin to the kind in his forearms when he once tried to lift his brothers’ barbells. The scent of candles filled his nostrils.
Before he knew it, his hand was on the wall. His finger smudged the bloated donkey, made it spill its creamy guts. He saw his mother’s face, as horrified as if he’d knifed a tourist in front of her.
“It’s oil,” he said.
But she wasn’t reassured; she was speechless.
“Are you crazy?” his father hissed. The Joop! proliferated.
Suddenly, it wasn’t only his parents gawking with disbelief. It was mothers and widows, and men with white chest hair and double cabins and bloodhounds. The black beard and soft face of a holy man –the priest from the cave– shot up in front of him. He snapped: “Child, do you doubt God?”
Thanos looked down, the tips of his ears burning.
The girl with curly hair was watching him. She wore a long white T-shirt with a rainbow-coloured palm tree on it.
The priest carried on reprimanding him. “Are you a Satanist?” he said. “Are you against the God who made you?”
Thanos tried to block him out. Priests were all corrupt, far from saints. It was in the news all the time, the money-laundering to Switzerland, pounds and cents lifted from donation plates. Who ever heard of a holy man driving a BMW?
With the room’s accusations hot on his back, Thanos left the Holy House. The sun erupted in his eyes. As he shoved his way through the flock, his arms floundering like those of a blind man who’d lost his cane, he felt his blood go weak. Flake 99s tempted him from the ice-cream van but there was no way he’d buy anything here. He’d drop into a coma and shut himself out of the Holy House for good before he’d give any money to that laughing ex-con. That Trachoni mafioso. Faces and hands doubled, quadrupled, leapt between the sparks on the tin foil under the dripping candles. His arms dropped and his eyelids fluttered, Roxani flickering in and out of his vision with the sun, as she raised her eyebrows and smiled from between the palm trees, between God and the blade of his knife.