A few weeks ago I wrote a Friday Fictioneers story with the title “The end of an era?” It felt like a story with potential and I said I would post a longer version. Here it is!
The end of an era
Giorgios sat with his youngest grandson, Yiannis, looking across the Gulf of Argos, over a sea that was motionless, a lacquered blue-grey. He drank occasionally from a glass of ouzo, rolling the liquid around his mouth, appreciating the flavour of aniseed and herbs. His posture suggested contentment, but his eyes were troubled.
“There’ll be a storm tonight,” suggested Yiannis.
Giorgios frowned. “Perhaps.”
Memories. So many memories burdened a man, he thought. Once he had been decisive, quick to sum up options, quick to plan necessary actions. Where was that ability now, when he needed it most of all? He missed Eirene at his side; how lonely he had been since she left him a widower.
“What do think of your cousin Katerina?” he asked Yiannis.
Yiannis sipped his ouzo as he considered the question.
“She’s bright. She can be too hasty sometimes.”
Giorgios turned back to the sea. The sun’s reflection in the water was dimpled like beaten bronze.
How different life was nowadays from when he was growing up. He remembered his teenage years, the years of German occupation, the years of resistance. You had to be quick, or you were dead. You had to be ready to save yourself, and not be too fussy about your neighbour.
And you made mistakes. You shot, and maybe the person you hit wasn’t German.
Giorgios closed his eyes. It had been a long time since he’d thought of Gennadios, Some things were best forgotten.
He heard Yiannis. “You’re tired, Grandfather. Would you like me to take you home?”
Giorgios opened his eyes and scowled.
“I want another ouzo,” he said.
Yiannis knew better than to argue. He ordered two more ouzos.
“Your Uncle Spiros thinks he should be my successor,” said Giorgios. He looked intently at Yiannis, who smiled.
“He is your eldest son. Why should he not inherit the business?”
Giorgios grunted. Clouds were building in the west, great mounds of cumulus racing heavenwards.
“You’re right. We shall have a storm. I’m glad Katerina invested in awnings with a guttering system. Our guests will stay dry. Take me back home now.”
Yiannis pushed Giorgios’ wheelchair back to the café, positioning him just inside the doors where he could watch the customers – and the staff. Georgios looked at the mighty plane tree sheltering one end of his café. He remembered Eirene planting it when they had just started the business. He remembered the thoughtful expression on her face as she firmed the soil around the sapling. “What are you thinking about?” he had asked, but she hadn’t answered. It had been an inspiration of hers, though, the mature tree drawing customers into its shade throughout the day.
Spiros bustled over, frowning at Yiannis. “Go and help Ajax in the kitchen,” he snapped. “We’re very busy tonight.” He scanned the tables. “Father, I wish you’d have a word with Demetrios.” Giorgios followed his gaze.
“Send him over to me,” he said. “He knows better than to sit down with our customers.”
As Demetrios minced towards him, Giorgios saw him compose his face, hiding resentment with a smile.
“You’re going to tick me off, I know, but that young man is so handsome I couldn’t help myself!”
“Don’t use your perversion as an excuse for unprofessional behaviour. I don’t want to see you sitting at a table again.” He waved Demetrios away.
He must make a decision. Who should inherit the café, the family business he started so many years ago? He sensed his time was running short.
Katerina joined him.
“You should eat something, Grandfather. Would you like Ajax to make you an omelette?”
“Yes, with mushrooms.”
As she served him the omelette, Katerina said, “Ajax is an excellent chef, a real asset. I heard other tavernas had approached him, so I’ve given him a pay rise – I hope that’s okay?”
Giorgios grunted. “What did your Uncle Spiros have to say about that?”
“Nothing. I asked him who he had in mind to replace Ajax when he left.” She smiled.
“How is Yiannis getting on? He’s been working with you, hasn’t he?”
“He’s good. Methodical, thorough, and with some flair. I let him negotiate our contract for ice-cream, and he did a good job.”
Giorgios pushed away the half-eaten omelette. “It’s good,” he said, “but I’m not hungry. Bring me a coffee.”
“You know what the doctor said about coffee.”
Giorgios glowered at her.
“I suppose one won’t hurt,” she said.
“Send Yiannis to me with the coffee.”
When Yiannis came, Giorgios glanced around. Was anybody listening?
“How would you feel if I left you the café?”
“There are others who have a greater claim than I.”
“But could you run it?”
Yiannis looked troubled. “Well, yes, I think I could if they let me. But don’t you think the family would oppose me?”
“Could you not talk them round? To run a business you need cunning and determination. Have you got those qualities?”
Giorgios watched Yiannis intently. Perhaps it would be unfair to burden him with the challenge of running the family business. Maybe the time had come to let control pass from the family.
“Don’t look so glum. It may never happen. A storm is the worst we’re likely to see tonight! Now, take me to my bedroom. And make sure the bell is on my bedside table.”
Although his wife, Eirene, had been dead four years, Giorgios still slept solely on the left hand side of the bed. But tonight, sleep eluded him. He thought of Eirene, beautiful, tranquil to the end of her life. As a young man he had loved her passionately; in middle age he loved her as the mother of his children, cherishing her; in old age desire had still burned, albeit with a cooler fire.
For some reason, the distant rumbles of thunder reminded him of Nazi artillery. Why had he thought that?
The hammering of torrential rain woke him. He clambered out of bed, and gazed out of the window at the plane tree. The raindrops slammed into the leaves like machine-gun fire, making them rattle, and beating them to the ground.
His chest hurt. He was used to that. Too much ouzo and coffee. “I don’t care if they do kill me,” he muttered, as though answering someone. The café was closed, the guests all gone.
“I must decide,” he thought. “I must decide.”
Giorgios stood panting. The room felt stuffy. His cheeks felt cold and clammy, and yet he was sweating.
Eirene had always loved Katerina more than the others. And now that he thought of it, Eirene had urged him to give her responsibility in the business. Eirene would want Katerina to inherit the business. He would leave it to her.
But the pain in his chest was too great. The air he breathed felt heavy as water. Giorgios stumbled to his desk and turned on the light. His hand found the notebook and pen without looking – he always kept them handy to jot down good ideas, day or night.
“Katerina is to have the café outright,” he wrote, “The remainder of my estate is to be split equally between my children.”
He added his signature, stumbled back to his bedside table, and rang the bell as loudly as he could. The pain was overwhelming. ‘Is this what Gennadios felt as my bullet ripped through his flesh, and his life gushed away?’ thought Giorgios.
He saw Eirene’s face, her teenage face, filled with desperate grief for Gennadios, and now he could see the shadow of that grief in every memory throughout her life. “She knew,” he marvelled. “How could she love me knowing that?”
Why had he never noticed?
Even as his bedroom door burst open there was a brilliant flash and an immediate shattering explosion of thunder.
“The tree!” exclaimed Yiannis.
“Katerina is to have the café,” gasped Giorgios, scarcely able to articulate the words. Eirene’s grief-laden stare, the terrified pallor of the dying Gennadios, accused him.
“Murder. I murdered him.”
Nobody could hear him. The rain hammered. Sirens shrieked. Even as Yiannis ran to his bedside, Giorgios died.