By Konstantina Sozou-Kyrkou
Thodoris snaffled the tin with the red paint from the grocery shop when pateras left him in his place to go use the toilet. He hid the tin and a brush under the empty beer baskets in the alley next to the shop and went there later at night to collect them – after pateras had switched the lights off and pulled the metal roll down. He wasn’t afraid he’d get caught in the act. He was good at those things. Always managed to sneak things under everybody’s noses; nobody ever suspected anything. Of course this time it was different. He did it for a good cause. For the village’s good.
When he brought the tin at home I saw him shove it under his bed, rub his hands briskly and grin. At first he didn’t want to tell me what he was hiding under the bed, but when I threatened to tell pateras about it, he spilled the beans. I said I wanted to go with him. I was brave enough and I could carry the tin if they wanted. He said they could manage themselves, and that a girl seen out late at night in the company of boys would draw more suspicions than two boys alone – his best friend Andreas and him.
I stayed there in his room, stamping my feet against the linoleum floor and sulking until he finally gave in. I’d go with them on one condition. I’d never tell anybody anything about it. Never. He told me we should now give a blood oath. He pricked his index finger with a pin and a tiny drop of blood popped out. He pricked mine. We touched fingers and our blood merged.
‘Now you’re a comrade, a communist,’ my brother told me with a gruff voice. ‘To do as you’re told by our secret organization, to work for the nation and the Greek people. To be ready to sacrifice your life for them.’ He bent and pulled the tin with the paint and the brush out and onto his lap, tapped at the lid with the brush as if on a drum and said, ‘Are we set for tonight then?’
‘Mm,’ I nodded. I wasn’t sure I was ready to do all this stuff for my country and its people, but I couldn’t possibly spoil his enthusiasm. After all, it was for everybody’s good. And we’d be heroes after that, though nobody except us would know about it. It’d be our little secret, a secret that would make us all proud of ourselves.
Late at night, I tiptoed to our parents’ bedroom door and peered through the keyhole. Pateras and mana were sleeping. Then into our grandparents’ bedroom. Papous and yiayia were both snoring. Thodoris and I edged our way out of the kitchen door and into the cold November night. I felt my lungs sting with every breath I took.I didn’t know whether it was from the chilly air or because I was so keyed up. We met Andreas down the street by the iron gate of the old school and formed a tight knot of conspirators, scattering tiny clouds of hot, fast breath in the moonlit air. Our footfalls shattered the silence of the night, echoing in my ears like hail on a tin roof. Smoke was rising up from some of the villagers’ chimneys, like the shadows of grey-hooded spies, and the acrid smell of burnt wood filled my nostrils. Andreas’s teeth kept chattering, and Thodoris slapped him on the nape of his neck to make him stop the noise. ‘Can’t help it, mate’, Andreas complained.
There would be two words to write: Eleftheria and Democratia. Freedom and Democracy were values for which we Greeks had fought many times in the past, causing immense bloodshed. Now it was high time we fought again, Thodoris had said. The fascist swine, the dictators, had gone too far this time. We heard it on the pirated radio station. Tanks treading on the university students at the Polytechnics last night. Soldiers against unarmed students. Thodoris cried with anger after the end of the news. The government TV channel YENEΔ had just showed a few well selected scenes with no victims present. It mentioned the leading dictator’s, Papadopoulos’s, statement that read, ‘that miasma the communism has spread its deleterious tentacles to the students, corrupting their minds,’ and that ‘the wild beasts’ efforts to overturn the healthy system have successfully been smothered.’ Thodoris explained that the communists were the good ones, the ones who fought against those bastards. He could get really hot-blooded when he talked about the dictators. He would clench his fists and froth at the edges of his mouth, his eyes round and red. I could hardly recognize his distorted face at such moments.
We’d write Eleftheria against the front wall of the gym and Democratia and Eleftheria on the main building, between the three dark green iron doors. Thodoris rolled up his sleeves, snapped the lid of the tin open with a clack and dipped the brush in. He spelt the word Eleftheria first, in big, round letters and then moved to the other building and wrote the same word again. Andreas was keeping watch near the gate.
‘Can I do it?’ I told Thodoris before he started off with the second word.
‘No, of course not. I want it straight and correctly spelt,’ he said.
‘You’ll tell me how. Please! Just this once.’
‘Oh, ok, ok,’ he said and gave me the brush. ‘Democratia with an e after D, ok?’ he said. I tried my best not to smudge the letters with the brush, although the D was more like a half moon rather than a letter. The rest of the letters were clearer but the word tilted upwards a bit. ‘Alright, alright, let’s pack now,’ Thodoris said.
There they were. Red, big, round letters against the white front of the school, like blood drips against young skin. We looked around for any unwanted presences and grabbed the tin and brush, ready to leave.
‘Oh, my God!’ I said, biting at my knuckles.
‘What’s wrong?’ Thodoris started.
‘What have we done?’
‘What? What?’ he goggled at me.
‘We used small letters. Not capital ones.’
‘They’ll recognize our handwriting.’
‘The teachers, of course!’
‘No, they won’t. We’ll trick them.’
‘We can’t. Look at the e and the c. They’re so very yours. And only I can do the r like this.’
‘I’m sure many more pupils do them the same way.’
‘I do the c the same way,’ Andreas said.
‘See?’ Thodoris said.
‘Oh, I don’t know. I’m scared to death. There’ll be a massive fuss tomorrow.’ I shivered at the thought. We stared at each other in silence, the whites of our eyes glinting in the moonlight. The air suddenly picked up, and we heard the elm leaves rustle and the twigs yowl as the wind passed through them.
‘Thodori, what did they do to the students in the Polytechnics, in Athens?’ Andreas said.
‘Tortured them I suppose. Don’t think about it. No one will ever catch us,’ Thodoris offered his knees again to help me jump over the gate.