I wear two hats when I write this blog of mine. First and foremost, I manage a small charity in a small Scottish town called Dumfries. Ours is a front door that opens onto the darker corners of the crumbling world that is Britain 2015. We hand out 5000 emergency food parcels a year in a town that is home to 50,000 souls. Then, as you can see from all of the book covers above, I am also a thriller writer. If you enjoy the blog, you might just enjoy the books. The link below takes you to the whole library in the Kindle store. They can be had for a couple of quid each.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The centre cannot hold.

We take a Saturday afternoon stroll from our apartment up on the hill all the way down to the centre of the city. After a decent number of years on the planet you get hard wired as to how such a journey should play out. The edge of town is leafy and quiet. And as you are drawn to the centre, the pavements fill and the traffic thickens. Shops get bigger. Crowds form. You need to wait for the green man to cross the road. It’s the old hustle and bustle thing.

Well it is most of the time.

Other times the hustle and the bustle is little more than a faded memory. Nostalgic black and white photos on the walls of pubs where twenty years of nicotine lines the ceiling. As you walk down the hill to downtown Athens nothing gets busier. Sure, few years ago the shops would have indeed been bigger. Now they are simply buildings with bigger sheets of plywood making a home for graffiti. The traffic thins and you have to pinch yourself and make a conscious effort to realise that it is four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon.

After a while even the shops that are not closed forever are closed for the day. A few kebab joints. A few lost souls standing out smoking and gazing into space outside their few square feet of customer free retail space given over to cigarettes and fridges of coke and magazines and bizarre plastic toys from China.

Waiters sit at the tables outside cafes and smoke and wait to wait on. For how long? Will there be any kind of an evening rush? It seems hard to believe there will.

Down and ever further in. Lots of rubbish now. Rubbish stacked in alleyways. Rubbish bursting free of metal wheelie bins. Rubbish blowing in and out of the gutters on a lonely wind.

People on pavements with eyes cast down to the cracks. Some with all their worldly goods in cheap plastic bags. Others with bin liners filled with collected empty drinks cans. Most have the lost air of people far, far away from anything resembling home. A piazza of graffiti and cracked concrete. Plants growing out of the gutters. Boarded shops staring at each other. And a group sitting on concrete ledge that would be at home on the wrong side of town all the way from Toronto to Glasgow to Sydney. Empty cans and bottles and eye sockets. Shared fags. Charity shop clothes hanging off coat hanger thin bones. And the zoned out empty stares of those under the thrall of badly cut opiates.

Ah. We’re in that part of town. The part the landlord had told us to avoid at night at all costs because when you have 4 million illegal immigrants looking for their next meal you get crime and prostitution and way too many dark corners.

By now the only shops open are Asian owned. They nestle in clusters of two or three on corners well on the way to being derelict. Suitcases for fifteen euros a pop. And faces that look like they haven’t cracked a smile since 1975. Carol is a problem to them. For Carol is black and right now being black in downtown Athens means that every Asian shopkeeper assumes that you are there to rob them blind. If she is on her own do they tell her to take a hike? Maybe. Probably. But I complicate things. And when we converse with each other in English it complicates things. And when she buys a scarf it complicates things.

Onwards and downwards. And where the hell is the city centre? Is this in fact the city centre? And above the peeling walls the sky is easing from grey into the blackness of night. And sometimes when people warn you not to be out and about after nightfall you take their words with a pinch of salt. But other times there is a hard to define sense of threat that hangs in the air that makes such warnings seem a smart play.

Now one every other corner there are parked police cars but barely a person to police. Just a few passing cars and buses and fleeting shadow people. Six o clock on a Saturday night in October and the wind is softly moaning up and down the litter strewn alleyways.

Time to rest the legs. A thin yellow light leaks out from the window of a small café down a side street. And people. Not many, but some. A sign of life. Twos and threes around old tables that won’t sit straight on the uneven pavement.

Two expressos ordered and delivered. And the other guests are looking us over with detached interest. Black woman. White man. English voices. What are you doing here on a greying Saturday evening? The men have that air about them. A certain style of clothing. A certain way with their hair. An amused hardness of the eye. Glasses of local brandy. Ash trays overflowing with filterless fag ends. Not worried to look you over.

Familiar somehow. And once we pay and leave a last look back explains the familiarity.

Balkan Café.

News reels from the 90’s. Sarajevo and Bihac and Vukovar. The same effortlessly hard eyes and casual way of carrying themselves.

And suddenly we are in a street that is bursting with life. The cafes are open and there is light everywhere. A bus terminal is like a film set. Coaches here, there and everywhere and the pavements are crowded. And the cafes are crowded. And the line of travel agents are crowded. And every garish advert speaks of the same service. For here is the place where you get the bus to Tirana. Here is the place to find a little piece of Albania in the dead heart of Athens.

And by now the guys are more obvious. Lean and mean and designer clad with eyes like big cats. Putting people on the bus to Tirana who aren’t wanted any more. Collecting people from the bus from Tirana who have a purpose to serve. The air is filled with the smell of cigarettes you can only buy in Eastern Europe. What is it with the gangsters of the East? They love to play it large in their western designer clothes and cars, but they can never give up the superstrong filterless fags of their youth. They have to make room for us as we walk by. The white man and the black woman. Who are they? What are they doing here? One of those moments when that spot between your shoulder blades seems to itch. We’re through and past and away but all of a sudden the road ahead is industrial and emptier than empty.

A U turn. A second journey through the ranks of Albania’s finest. And Carol is shown money by a boss man clad in a spanking new Arran jumper. She is black so she must be for sale. I am middle aged and white and have a greying pony tail so I must be a pimp. It is black and white in every respect. Carol doesn’t know ho much? She only gives the note in his hand the briefest of glances. Her gut feeling is that it is five euros. The value of a life on the streets of the city centre: as measured through the hard, hard eyes of a gangster from Tirana.

In his Arran jumper.

We say nothing. We walk on. They have a laugh and refocus on the next bus.

A drink and a cab back up the hill. Downtown Athens at seven o clock in the evening. It is well on the way to becoming another Detroit. A Brooklyn. A Mogadishu? Surely not. But the shops are closed forever and the only people left are the gangsters and the desperate.

‘Things fall apart.

The centre cannot hold……’

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