© Juliet Hill
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Onassis and Hoxha
A Short Story
* denotes begin/end italics
The narrow stretch of sea had always held on to its secrets but sometimes abandoned objects would wash up on the beach at Saranda. Tomor would look out at the Corfu channel, wondering if these treasures had come from a yacht like the one belonging to Aristotle Onassis: a French perfume bottle, a ripped silk scarf, even a Duke Ellington record. It was too worn away by the sea to play on his parents’ ancient player but he kept it in a box under the bed and took it out from time to time.
Tomor’s father said Onassis was irresistible to women and would take them on his luxury yacht to sail around the Mediterranean. His father gleaned the information from forbidden magazines or Italian radio broadcasts which crackled through on a tiny receiver when they were sure of complete solitude. He also claimed to have seen the yacht sail past, complete with Maria Callas on deck, but Tomor found that hard to believe. He could visualise fascinated Albanians reaching for hidden binoculars and focusing on the vessel, trying to get a glimpse of the mosaic dance floor which could be lowered to make an instant swimming pool or the huge spiral staircase that dominated the central part of the boat, but he never heard of a single sighting beyond his father’s imaginary one.
When Tomor’s father found out about Onassis’s death he intoned that it was the end of an era. Tomor didn’t believe that either. His father had said the same thing two years earlier, hope and emotion creeping into his dry voice, when President Hoxha suffered a devastating heart attack. Nothing changed. Unlike Onassis, Hoxha seemed to be invincible.
Looking out of his window forty years later with the Straits directly ahead, and the island of Corfu so close, it was hard to believe that these waters had once only been the preserve of a few Greek fishermen, clinging to the Corfu coast to avoid coming anywhere near the heavily mined Albanian side. Now the water swarmed with assorted yachts, fishing boats and ferries and he reflected that it would probably be more dangerous to swim across than it had been then. He could see the coast of Corfu as clear as ever, its tiny inlets, harbours and cottages contrasting with the luxury houses clinging to the edge of low cliffs.
Visitors came regularly from Corfu, skimming over the water and bumping along pot-holed roads to the nearby Roman ruins of Butrint. A few more intrepid backpackers chose to stay in Saranda’s hotels and guest houses, convinced that they’d found the next hot spot. It was somewhere new for their gap year, or whatever they called it, giving them a one-upmanship over their friends who’d gone to Vietnam or Bolivia.
Tomor heard somebody enter the room and turned to see his wife Adelina, carefully folding empty plastic bags and putting them in her handbag.
‘You don’t have to do that. They’ll give you more at the supermarket.’
After Adelina had gone he looked out of the window again. The beach was still empty, the backpackers sleeping off their hangovers, and it was still possible to remember how quiet it had been in the old days. The nights were different. Now there were kids on the beach till the early hours, shouting and playing loud music while young local men on mopeds roared up and down the esplanade, unaware or ignorant of the price that had been paid by earlier generations. The lights were never dimmed and the neon pushed its way into his house, however much he tried to block it out.
Before, the nights were completely silent and light came only from the stars. Few wanted to risk being questioned about why they were out, and people huddled in the comparative safety of their grey concrete homes, listening to the news on the national radio station. They would filter and interpret the information as best they could, in an attempt to make sense of their own lives, trying to mentally compensate for the shrieking absence of things that they knew were happening but were never mentioned.
It was on a night like that when Tomor and Ilir set out. They’d been planning it for a few months and felt finally ready. They’d trained every day until exhaustion set in, trying to build their strength for something that they couldn’t predict. How could they know what dangers there’d be? They’d heard tales of people who’d made it, young men their own age who’d swum the channel and built a new life in Corfu but of course nobody could verify these stories and very few people even wanted to talk about the subject.
‘Have some more stew. You’ll need it.’
Tomor’s mother somehow knew something was up, the way of mothers everywhere, though she said nothing. When he’d first met Ilir at primary school she’d concealed her misgivings about their friendship, trying not to let her own worries infect his life and calmly answering his questions about the Greek minority in Saranda. His father, in spite of his admiration for Onassis could only mutter *count your fingers after shaking hands with a Greek*.
But as an adult Tomor realised just how worried they’d been about the possible effects on his family of his closeness with Ilir. Now he and his mother acknowledged in silence that the less she knew about their plans the better.
‘I’m fine mum. I promised Ilir I’d go over to help him fix his radio.’
‘Your father’ll be back soon. Don’t you want to stay and say hello?’
‘I’ll see him later.´
He’d already said a final goodbye to his father early that morning, though his father hadn’t known it. He wanted to tell him that if it hadn’t been for his tales of Onassis and luxury yachts, of all-night balls and glamorous foreign guests, Tomor mightn’t have felt this urge to go. Most of his other friends didn’t feel that need. They talked about escaping to the west but for them it was an abstract idea, a promised land where they would be millionaires and have access to unlimited beautiful women and luxury food. But given the choice they’d have gone for a high party position, a meaner, shabbier reward.
Tomor’s interest in the world beyond Saranda was nourished by Ilir’s family. Ilir’s grandparents would talk of the old days, their old days. His mother would try to stop them but they were beyond telling, and Tomor would listen to their tales of Greek life, marvelling as they switched between Albanian and Greek to emphasise a particular point or when something was untranslatable. They spoke of small villages where life revolved around the church and religious festivals dominated the calendar; they spoke of whitewashed houses and unlimited fish in the sea, of small bakeries and bars, of dances and parties. Sometimes they cried as they remembered family and friends on the other side of the endless electrified fence that separated the two countries, but when this happened they switched to Greek and Tomor would quickly lose the thread.
He once asked Ilir why his parents never spoke Greek.
‘They do. But not when other people are around. My father says it’s better not to draw attention to ourselves.’
‘But you don’t speak it.’
Ilir laughed. He had the kind of chuckling laugh that always made Tomor want to join in and he found himself smiling.
‘You’ve just never heard me.’
It might have been that moment that Tomor thought: if I do the swim I should go with Ilir, so that one of us can communicate when we arrive. Or it might have been that he’d already decided to ask him to come and that just confirmed that it was the right decision. Whatever it was, he mentioned it to him that night.
Ilir didn’t laugh this time.
‘Swim across the sea? Are you mad? There are mines, searchlights, you’ve seen them. We’d get picked up in no time. They’d probably shoot us on sight.’
‘Not if we time it well. It’s been done before.’
‘You don’t know that for sure.’
‘Old mother Vrioni’s son never came back.’
‘He could be in a prison camp. She’s not going to say, is she? And anyway, even if we weren’t shot, do you really think we could swim that far? God knows, it’s a least ten kilometres from here and there’s no way we could get down the coast to start somewhere closer.’
But Tomor had planted the seed and soon Ilir and he were talking about it more seriously, taking long walks to discuss their plans in depth. In this, they followed the example of their elders. Nobody talked about serious subjects unless they were outside and alone, and even then they constantly looked around and dropped their voices in a kind of unconscious reflex action. There had always been rumours about President Hoxha’s secret scientific experiments and when paranoia set in, as it frequently did, it didn’t seem absurd that he could have developed some mind-reading tool or even a listening device implanted in peoples bodies or in animals. After all, the secret police always seemed to know everything.
Sometimes they allowed themselves to dream. Tomor would tell Ilir the stories about Onassis and his famous friends, and they’d plan how they’d build a luxury yacht and sail it around all of the Mediterranean. Ilir’s dream was more modest.
‘My father says that the fascists are no longer in charge in Greece. If I can make a life there, maybe I can get my parents out and we can set up a business, just the family, the way my grandparents talk about it.’
Soon their swim became an accepted fact and by the 1980s when the regime finally lost its last deep-pocketed ally, Tomor decided that the time was right.
And now he was leaving for Ilir’s house where they would wait a few more hours before making their way to the quietest stretch of coast they could get to without leaving the town boundaries. Tomor’s mother called him back.
She was holding a silver metal cross on a chain. He’d never seen one close up before and he certainly had no idea that his mother had her own treasure secreted away, just as he had his Duke Ellington record hidden in the box under the bed.
‘I want you to wear it. For safety.’
He wouldn’t be safe for five minutes with something like that hanging around his neck, but he knew what she meant. He put it on carefully and pushed it down underneath his jersey and shirt so that there wasn’t even an outline showing. Then he kissed his mother, picked up his small duffel bag and left.
They waited until after midnight before leaving Ilir’s house and by then there was nothing on the roads, not even a military patrol. The moon was nearly full, lighting their pale faces and giving them an unexpectedly starring role in the dark of the night. The stars were clear on the Albanian side but looking across the water Tomor was able to see the much brighter lights of Corfu dazzling across the water and shaming his silent town. Perhaps even now the people of Corfu were celebrating some local festival, laughing, drinking and dancing, while their more subdued neighbours across the channel were in bed early, following a deep-rooted instinct to avoid anything that might draw attention.
The two of them made their way slowly south on the Kasamil road, ready to jump to one side and hide behind the scrubby bushes at any moment. It was a warm night with a light breeze coming in from the sea, and as he breathed in the salty night air, Tomor realised that he’d never been out this late before, not even on New Year’s Eve. He couldn’t imagine a life in which you went out at night for pleasure.
The rocky promontory they’d chosen after weeks of intense deliberation was as far from the beach as they dared go, and had the advantage that they could climb down and shelter among the boulders while timing the sweeps of the searchlights and waiting for the right moment.
‘What was that?’
They were near the point where they were planning to descend to the rocks, when they heard it. The rough diesel cough of a military truck, a vehicle they both learnt to distinguish from a young age. It had to be a patrol; nobody else would be out at this time unless they were on official business. Tomor looked around desperately, trying to find something, anything that they could use for shelter.
Ilir pushed him ahead and they ran across some scrubland and hid in a group of anaemic-looking trees near the edge of the cliff. They heard the truck stop for a while and deep voices muttering inaudible comments as soldiers flashed torchlights briefly around the immediate area, but then it left, leaving an aroma of exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke in the warm night air. Tomor and Ilir waited for what felt like at least an hour before beginning to venture out from their hiding place, not believing their luck and flinching at every sound. Ilir crawled towards the edge of the cliff and began to make his way down to the rocks but Tomor hung back, hissing in his direction.
‘What if they come back? They’re not stupid. Let’s wait a bit longer.’
And then he saw it. A solid beam of light making its way across the grass. There was no sound just the moving torchlight and he knew that he couldn’t move or draw attention to himself, so he stood, trembling, like a lizard frozen on a wall. There was another light and then another. An army of torches marching across the scrubby grass, the lights bobbing up and down with the soldiers’ strides and now with the sound of muttered orders and muted replies.
When he ran through the scene in his mind later, his one regret was turning his head a fraction to check for Ilir. He should have remained still, pretending he was alone, but it was too late. Two of the torches were suddenly focused directly on him and he knew there was no way out.
He couldn’t regret his second involuntary movement although it haunted him for a long time afterwards. What else would he have done? It was as natural as remembering his mother’s face. His hand, which had been still by his side suddenly reached towards his chest and felt for the cross under his clothes, almost as if he really believed all that stuff and was trying to tap into the power of the symbol. He wanted to feel it there, not just for his mother but because it was something that they - the authorities, the soldiers, the police - couldn’t control.
It was the commanding officer. Tomor couldn’t see him through the torchlight but his voice came from above. As they pushed him over and ripped off his clothes, kicking him around like a football, he recognised one of them as the tall soldier he’d seen in the square earlier that day, sitting smoking a cigarette and looking out to sea. Tomor had caught his eye as he passed and felt the soldier’s gaze on his back as he walked away towards the bakery. It didn’t seem impossible that the soldier had sensed his guilt and figured out his plans.
They threw him in the back of a truck and began the bumpy journey to the police station. The cross had been ripped from his neck and he didn’t see it again until much later, when it reappeared in the hands of his torturers and was pressed into service in ways he’d spent a long time trying to forget.
When he returned home, nobody spoke of Ilir. The family had left or been forced out, and when Tomor asked after them, people shook their heads and hurried away. It was as if they’d never been there. In his own house his father had died and his mother rarely spoke. She cried for a full day when he hobbled through the front door a year after his arrest, but then retreated into her silence, and he felt guilty even asking her simple questions. She never mentioned the cross and neither did he.
He thought a lot about Ilir during the years when nobody seemed to be in charge of the country and a kind of low level anarchy bubbled under the surface. He liked to imagine his friend sipping cocktails on the deck of a yacht with Duke Ellington playing in the background, Onassis-style, or sitting in a brightly-painted Corfu restaurant watching the sun go down with a brandy and a cigarette.
But at night Hoxha and his henchmen still reigned. At night Ilir was caught by searchlights and machine-gunned in the water or blown up by a mine and left in bloody pieces to get caught in the seaweed or pecked at by hungry fishes. What was left of his face would stare with an expression of angry disappointment and Tomor would jerk awake with a concrete block of guilt pressing hard against his chest. One unwanted reflex had betrayed his friend, the other his mother’s mysterious beliefs. But the weight was beginning to diminish and Tomor could breathe a little easier every year. He’d never forget Ilir and his chuckling laugh, but he had to leave him there, in the water.
He heard Adelina come in and start to unpack the shopping. She was singing to herself. He took one last look at the stretch of sea which had dictated the course of his life and went downstairs to help her.