The Thieving Goat

The goat lurches further up the hill, with my hair in her mouth. As though dragged I follow two paces behind. It’s not, of course, my natural hair that she has stolen; the nanny goat is just out of reach with the wig that I wear to cover my nakedness. Thank God I’d had a scarf in my handbag, so that I can preserve at least my decency if not my looks.
I cast a distracted glance at the café. Two old men in dark, rumpled suits sit hunched there, nursing cups of strong Greek coffee and surveying the street with infinite cynicism. Surely they must have seen the goat grab my wig, seen my desperate struggles to conceal the fact that I am as bald, almost, as an egg?
Fighting apprehension, I step towards the goat. She sidles away from me. Should I try to rush her? It feels risky. If she bolts I will never see my hair again. On the other hand, she might start eating it at any moment.
Perhaps I could pretend that I’m not interested? I look away, and take a few steps towards the pavement, trying surreptitiously to come behind her, out of her sight. I throw a would-be casual glance in her direction. She stares back, with a most knowing expression, a sneer in fact, upon her face.
Abandoning pretence I glare directly at her. She stares at me, unperturbed, insolent, and shakes the wig from side to side. I can almost believe that she is taunting me.
“May I help you?”
A man’s voice startles me – I have been concentrating so hard on the animal, that I haven’t heard his approach. The man is tall, 6 feet I guess, and wears a casual shirt and shorts. His hair has faded to a gentle grey and his dark brown eyes are humorous and kind. He carries a jute shopping bag. I hope fervently that he doesn’t realise the ugliness concealed by my scarf, then dismally realise that he can hardly fail to guess – the goat is, after all, carrying the evidence in full view.
I stand there, tongue-tied, while he continues smoothly “Would you like me to retrieve your property for you?” My gratitude for his kindness is tempered by an agonising doubt as to whether there was a hesitation before the word ‘property’. His English is excellent but the timbre of his voice tells me that he is Greek.
Anger at my ridiculous predicament prompts me to reply in Greek, “Ef haristo – thank you, that would be most kind.”
“I shall need to make Nana pay attention to me. I wonder whether you would mind moving away a little? Perhaps you might like to sit down at the café?
Obediently I move away, then halt.
“Can I buy you a coffee? Or a beer?”
“Coffee would be nice. Thank you.”
I sit down at the café. The old men glance briefly in my direction and exchange words. Their voices sound harsh and they interrupt each other apparently angrily, but I know Greece well enough to understand that close friends often speak to each other like this. My Greek is good enough to work out that they are wagering on whether my rescuer will retrieve the hairpiece. I perspire with embarrassment, and concentrate on watching the pursuit.
The man stands poised, alert and vigorous. The brilliant sunshine paints him with light. The muscles of his arms and legs are taut and well-defined.  There is a bunch of carrots in his hands. He doesn’t offer them to the goat so much as dare her to come and take them from him. The animal watches and hesitates, clearly tempted.
“Giving away your dinner, Professor?” jeers one of the old men. He and his companion cackle, and throw sly glances at me.
The goat suddenly tosses her head and turns to make off, but with astonishing speed my matador is beside her, grasping the tether around her neck.
“Parakalo? Please? You want to order something?”
“Oh! Two Greek coffees, please. Without sugar.”
I’ve missed the action. The goat is wandering up the street with a mouth full of carrots and my friend is approaching with a smile. My hair is nowhere to be seen.
He sits at the table, reaches into his bag and hands me the wig. It is damp and sticky with goat saliva, but seemingly undamaged. I feel dizzy with relief.
“Thank you. That was so kind. You must let me buy you some more carrots,” I babble, as I tuck the pathetic hairpiece into my handbag. He smiles.
“I’m afraid the market has closed now; but it’s no problem. I don’t really like carrots – I only eat them because they’re good for me; at least, that was what my mother taught me. By the way, I should introduce myself. My name is Agamemnon.”
“I’m Susan – Sue, that is.”
Agamemnon gives a little bow of acknowledgement.
“Where did you learn how to catch goats?” I ask.
“Oh me, I’m a peasant. I was brought up with goats and olive trees.”
I feel myself relaxing. What a pleasant person this Agamemnon is, I think. “It was very impressive. I’m so grateful.”
He smiles, says nothing and sips his coffee. “Without sugar; the best way. You are a woman of good taste.” His easy manner makes the remark a compliment rather than condescension.
“I can’t believe you’re a peasant,” I venture.
“Can you not? My roots are firmly in the soil. But there, I’m teasing you. My family are peasant farmers, but I am an academic. Sometimes the old skills come in handy, though. I dream occasionally of retiring to a patch of land with a few olives, a vine or two – and a goat, of course.” His grin is boyish, mischievous. I find myself grinning back.
“I’m a teacher. At least, I was; I’m not sure that I shall go back after my sabbatical.” I pause, but without the usual sense of unease that makes me hurry to fill a silence. “The gentlemen at the end table called you ‘Professor’. Is that right? Are you a professor?”
Agamemnon nods. “Professor of twentieth century music at Athens University. It’s my passion, my life.”
‘How nice,’ I think ‘to be able to speak openly like that about one’s deepest feelings. How satisfying to have a job that fulfils you like that.’
“This is a wonderful country,” I say. “It gives me such a sense of peace. The – continuity of human experience going back millennia. It’s tangible, somehow. When I am here, I can believe that something of me will transcend my physical death.”
Agamemnon looks intently at me. “And yet our modern nation was born in violence and warfare. The struggle for political freedom has continued to this day.”
I see anger and sadness in his eyes, faintly, like a reflection of things that happened many years earlier. I don’t want to pry, but I feel an impulse to draw closer to this man, who seems so open and yet enigmatic.
“I’m not sure that the violence matters. When I was in the city of Argos I saw that underneath the modern construction lie layer upon layer of earlier buildings. The site has been occupied continuously for four thousand years. Men and women have been living there, growing olives, trading, creating beauty, yes fighting sometimes, but also loving, raising children, caring for family. People very like me, feeling the same way, dreaming the same dreams, growing old, but passing on the flame to the young.” I stammer as I finish my speech, feeling unaccountably moved.
“You have been very ill, I think,” suggests Agamemnon.
Christ, how dare he! How dare he invade my privacy like this!
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have spoken, it’s none of my business.”
“No, you’re right, it’s not.”
Why am I like this, becoming so angry when people want to know me too intimately? What possible harm could it do to talk openly to this warm, considerate human being about my struggle for life? Was this why Bob walked out on me five years ago – because I wouldn’t let him be close to me?
“Perhaps you would let me take you to dinner this evening to make amends?”
“Oh, no! If anything I should entertain you, to thank you for rescuing me from the goat.” What am I saying? A moment ago I was all set to stalk away at his impertinence.
“No, really, that was a pleasure. A chance to prove to myself that a few of my youthful skills remain.”
We sit together in silence for a few minutes. My agitation subsides in the face of Agamemnon’s tranquillity.
“I had cancer, breast cancer,” I blurt out. “The chemotherapy made my hair fall out. It was all so horrible. I hate talking about it.”
Agamemnon says nothing, simply reaches across the table and gently takes my hand. I am astonished, not at the gesture but at the fact that I do not immediately recoil. I don’t quite know what to do, so I do nothing. That is to say, I do not move, I am not aware of even thinking – but I feel, I experience. I take pleasure in the touch of another human being for the first time in many months.
Suddenly, I am talking; about the fear of death and of disfigurement; about the pain, and the sickness and the weakness that the chemotherapy brought. About the struggle to maintain my sense of self-worth, already battered by my husband’s desertion several years before my illness.
“I told myself that I had to survive for the kids’ sake – although they’re grown up now, they don’t really need me. I pushed them away, so that it wouldn’t be unbearable for them if they lost me; but I fought to live so that I could stay close to them. I felt very lonely.” I think of the desert I had inhabited, the self-imposed exile in Greece. How strange that I should consider it an exile! Until just minutes ago I had regarded it as a holiday, a convalescence, in a place that I loved.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’ve been gabbling too much.” I fall silent, my hand still enfolded in Agamemnon’s. I look at our hands. His is strong, with fine fingers. Mine is pale, bony, showing the ravages of the treatment. I look at his face. There is a hint of mischief in his eyes.
“Now you’re being English again,” he exclaims.
“And all the better for it!” I riposte; and somewhere between his teasing and my reply I realise, with joy and wonder, that lunch will be just the beginning.

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