“Nica, what’s Giveness?” Manny yanked my long plait to pull my ear down and catch his whisper. I grabbed his little cheeky chin, and pulled his nose to mine.
“FOR-giveness you silly monkey. It’s For-giveness.” I shoved him away and pinched his ear, causing him to whinny and squirm.
We were playing with some other kids at back of the Church, while Father Yannis droned on about fasting and flesh and purity and the choir was singing sad lines from a book.
“What, four, like me?”
“No Manny, it’s Forgiveness. It means you say ‘Sorry’ to God and everyone for everything and then everyone says ‘That’s OK’ back, and then everyone starts all over with No Sins.”
“Oh. And what’s Sins?”
“It’s when you’re naughty, and say bad words, and steal halva from Yaya’s table, and hold hands with boys at school. That’s Sins.”
“That’s you in big Sins then. You should go for Giveness.”
Grabbing his waist, I tickled him hard. He yelped and broke free, running out of the vestry door, with me right behind him. He hid behind the legs of the men who’d wandered out of the long service for a smoke and a chat.
“Come back here you goat!” I dived at him through the gathering.
“Oi, oi! Ti leei? What’s going on?” Papa called out from his bench.
Papa wasn’t a believer, he called himself a Communist, and that meant he didn’t need to go. But he liked to loiter outside the Church to argue about God, and the State, and the Working Man with all the smokers.
Pappous was inside with Yaya doing the bowing and kneeling and forgiving, together with Mama and most of the village: “Forgive me, a sinner,” we heard again and again. Yaya used to call Papa her black sheep, because he stayed outside, but she didn’t seem really cross, only pretend cross.
Papa laughed as we chased, catching Manny, and swinging him high onto his shoulders, so I had to jump to grab at his feet; he turned him this way and that to defeat me. Manny squealed in delight and stuck his thumb under his teeth to mock me. Papa turned round as I did it right back, pretending to be really cross as he booted my bum.
“Come on, let’s head home, you two. We can get supper on, and set ready your kites for tomorrow. Mama can walk up in a while, with the old slowcoaches.”
We meandered up the road, towards our house at the top – the very last house of the village. As we went higher I kept my eyes on the ferry that was lazily crossing the Bay of Evia.
Beyond, the mountains were snow-capped, and looked like they were floating in the sky. Manny was enjoying his ride and asking question after question. I sometimes missed that way of getting home, just Papa and me, but I was big now, and at school and everything, and that was better still.
“Papa, when do we go for Giveness?” Manny was trying hard to understand.
“Sweetheart, you don’t need forgiveness. You’ve done nothing wrong. You and Nica are already good.”
Manny and I looked at each other for a moment, both puzzled by this idea.
Manny kept thinking.
“And you are good, Papa?”
“I do my best, Manny, and my conscience is calm. I work hard, I keep you two fed and safe, and I love your Mama. That’s good enough for any man.”
We walked on.
“So has Mama been bad? Or Pappous and Yaya?”
Papa shook his head, and chuckled. “I don’t think so, Manny, do you?”
“Why do they go for Giveness then?”
“That is simply their faith, padai mou, it’s what they believe. And their choice, just like you can choose what to believe, in time.”
This silenced Manny for a while, and he considered his options. I watched Papa’s face as he plodded up the hill with his load. He looked into the setting sun and his skin glowed gold and red, big shadows under his eyes.
“Why don’t you like the Church, Papa? Why do you sit outside?”
Papa thought for a while. “I don’t believe that the people should be kept in poverty while the Church is dripping in gold. It is not fair.”
“What’s poverty, Papa? “
“Oh Manny, shut up and race me home!” I took off up the hill.
“Hup-la, hup-la, Papa! Don’t let her win!”
The hounds took off after the hare.
After supper, Yaya cleared up while Papa saw to the hens, I examined our kites, waiting for Mama to finish tucking Manny in. Pappous was still at the table with me, finishing his tsipouro and smoking his pipe. He watched me at my work and the delicious smoke enveloped me.
We both knew tomorrow was a big day – Manny’s first Clean Monday with his own kite. To add to the thrill, and because I was eight, Pappous and I had restored his old kite, so that I would have something special to fly, too.
It was traditional blue and white, six sides, and as wide as my outstretched arms. We’d changed the old strings and re-weighted the tail, and made sure the attachments were tied tight. I’d written my wishes on each part of the tail, while Manny stuck cut-out pictures from the toyshop catalogue on his. I’d rubbed linseed oil into the canes and treated the paper with more beeswax, so it smelt rich and ancient, but it was strong.
Manny’s kite was a diamond in scarlet, with a flying angel painted in sparkling gold and silver, and a very long tail. It wasn’t as big as mine, but I still reckoned it could whip him clean off the mountain, if we didn’t watch out.
I burned with excitement, and wanted the morning to hurry.
Mama woke me at dawn, from a very deep sleep, which had claimed me, despite my best efforts to stay up all night. She smelled of incense and rose water, from Church the night before and looked squeaky clean and sunny.
“Kalimera, my darling! Let’s fly kites and make wishes!”
“Kathari Deftera! Clean Monday! Let’s go!”
Up where we were, we could see down to the village square where, already, some kites were aloft. The bay was sparkling, bright blue as the sky, and a playful sharp wind soon wiped the sleep from our eyes as we raced down the hill, urging Mama and Papa on with our kites.
Pappous had set off long before, us as it takes his old legs much longer, and was already in the square when we arrived, puffing on his pipe and looking up to the skies, smiling. Yaya stayed home and rested, the Sunday had worn her out.
He beamed when he saw me, and almost skipped over to get my kite from Mama. Papa was helping Manny unravel his string, and had set him upon a bench to give him some height.
“Now, paidi mou, the higher you fly, the closer you get to God, the cleaner you’ll be. Keep your eyes up there in the blue, because then God will know that you love him and you are thinking of him. Okay?”
Soberly, we both nodded at Pappous, then each other.
“What happens if we go as high as the sun, Pappous?” Manny had his head bent right back looking straight at the sky.
“Éla! Éla! If you get that high, little man, then you will turn into the angel Emmanuel who named both you and me alike! But don’t worry, your string is not that long, I don’t think. Eh, Nica?”
I stamped my impatience as a reply, and pointed down at the kite. He laughed and picked it up, gesturing for me to walk backwards.
“Go on, a bit further, ‘til the string is quite tight.” I solemnly obeyed, and saw Mama unwinding the string with Manny, as Papa walked back with his kite.
“Now feel for the wind, be patient,” said Pappous. “Can you feel it? Lean back a little…”
I felt the breeze take hold, once, twice, and held my breath, while he held on tight to the frame. Then catching my eye as the third gust came, he released the kite and it soared!
I almost let go in surprise, it felt so strong and free. A quick glance to my left, and I caught Manny’s squinting glee, while Mama sat on the bench holding his legs, and Papa hopping around with excitement, all faces raised.
Our kites joined the chaos in the sky, dancing and flitting and dipping with the others. There seemed room enough for all, and the clear blue was peppered with colour, and filled with the flapping and slapping of fabric and paper and twine. It was magical. My arms, at full stretch, swung and switched as the kite pulled them this way and that; and more than once I was up on my toes, as if about to take off to the sun.
A bumblebee-buzzing began to sound on the road in the north corner and got louder and louder, as a whole string of young men on mopeds rode onto the square, scattering children and families in their approach. They were wearing face-masks that I had seen in a film, and had huge red and yellow flags, attached to the back of their mopeds, on tall canes.
They buzzed around like flies causing chaos, as folk swept up their children in fear. Passing nearby, one threw down a thunder-flash firecracker which went off with a mighty boom just behind Manny, who fell back off the bench and landed squarely on his bottom, the way only little ones do. He let go his strings, and in the shocked pause between landing and wailing, his kite was free and climbing high over the square, heading toward the Church.
“Papa, Pappous! My kite, my angel!” He wailed.
Mama scooped him up and held him close, and yanked me to her hip, shielding our eyes and ears from the smoke and the noise. I squirmed to look from Papa to Pappous, who had set off across the square chasing the kite, his arms held high as if he could catch the strings. He was being bumped and jostled in the chaos as he ran, and I could see him getting slower and stumbling while the kite flew further away. I broke free of Mama’s grip and sprinted across to help him, to pull him back.
“We can make a new one Pappous, come back!” I cried as I chased.
I could hear Mama calling my name. But what was he doing? He had dropped to his knees, arms held aloft, then he sank forward, just like last night in the Church.
“Pappous! Get up! You’ll be squashed! Pappous, Pappous, get up!” I fell onto his back and held him, wrapped my arms and legs around him like I used to for a piggy back, held onto him for life itself.
The mopeds were leaving the square and were buzzing and beeping down the road south towards Athens. In the clearing smoke I could hear crying children and cussing grown-ups, and Manny calling out “My angel, my angel!”
But Pappous didn’t move. And when Mama and Papa got to me, still he didn’t move. Mama fell onto her knees and held both of us close, a wail seeping out of her in a way I had never heard. A crowd gathered round and stood murmuring, and still he didn’t move.
Papa prised me off his back, and turned my head in close to his neck, and I realised he was sobbing.
“Forgive me, a sinner,” he whispered.
Originally from Bath, Sarah has been living in Swansea for over thirty years. She took a break from a career in stage management to complete her MA in Creative Writing at Swansea University. She is currently working on a radio drama and a collection of short stories.