When you have nonconformist grandmothers you are conditioned to have a black-and-white view of the world, and to take a particular stance with regard to the very weighty matter of evil. They knew where they stood, my grandmothers, and that is where I had to stand, too.
Against evil, they were. Very definitely. ‘Oh, the sin in this wicked world,’ one would lament as she listened to the radio, while the other used regularly and darkly to warn siblings and self about the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire. And our sins would surely find us out. This maxim did not always prove to be true, we realised eventually, but it certainly had the effect of keeping us on the straight and narrow for years.
It seems to me now, in an age when it is deeply unfashionable to be good, or even to aspire to goodness, that sin and evil were more easily recognised way back then. Here pranced the Devil, with his leering face, his pitchfork, long tail, horns and cloven hoofs. There slithered the green and menacing serpent in the Garden. Somewhere else reared the bejewelled, winged and fire-breathing dragon that Saint George had to slay a thousand times over.
Things, alas, did not remain so simple. For with the passing of time and the arrival of mass communication, evil took on an everyday face: a beaming Stalin smiling under a bristling moustache as he petted Svetlana; a suave Hitler at leisure with his dogs, or with Eva Braun; and a bevy of beautiful Goebbels children. I was once introduced to the Greek colonel nicknamed ‘the Torturer’: he looked like anybody’s kind, old grandfather, and went to church often and made the sign of the Cross as a matter of course.
These days evil can simply ride a jet ski or glide across a ballroom floor; sin can sit in a bingo hall or church pew or clothe itself in a housecoat and fluffy slippers. Evil on a small and modest scale, I mean: we’re not talking Pol Pot or Idi Amin here.
Our grandmothers did not spend much time actually pondering sins of commission, for these were all too obvious. No, sins of omission had a certain subtlety, were much more challenging. I can’t help feeling, though, that they would have been sorely tested by Greek village life and its endemic fatalism. Heaven knows I have been. ‘If God wills it’, the old yiayiathes sigh as they cross themselves. ‘What can we do?’ Or ‘There is nothing we can do’.
The Australian grannies never crossed themselves (of course not!) and were partial to the notion that God helps those who help themselves. We, small children in 1950s Australia, were brought up to believe that there was always plenty that could be done: no passing by on the other side for us. We had to do unto others, and that was it. The example of the five foolish virgins, who took no oil to the wedding feast and so missed out on the celebrations entirely, was constantly referred to, as was the parable of the talents. (But I must confess that when I eventually saw a talent in the Heraklion Museum, I felt a certain sympathy for the servant who simply buried the huge thing in the back garden and hoped for the best.)
Although I live in Greece, I was in Australia some little time after the 2001 Federal election, and was also present when my brother and uncle were bemoaning the result. Uncle, however, suddenly turned an austere Presbyterian eye on my brother and said, ‘You’re sitting there complaining, but I bet you’ve never been to a political meeting in all your life.’ At which my brother looked sheepish, not to mention shame-faced.
So did I: but then, coming to Australia always forces me to recognise my own shortcomings and definite sins of omission: the letters not written, the phone calls not made, the people not visited, the projects not carried out, the things just not done. When, with a little bit of effort, they could have been.
During the visit that extended into 2002, however, I was made aware of an evil that had hitherto been totally unfamiliar: the emotional abuse of the aged.
Under the influence of a powerful second wife and her equally powerful grown-up family, the father of my friend Paul had recently decided that he wanted nothing more to do with Paul or Paul’s children. Yet in the past the octogenarian had always been very proud of his son and grandchildren. After a stroke Paul’s father’s health had deteriorated, however, and it was clear that he was becoming frail and vulnerable. He was also becoming very persuadable, a tendency that had not been at all evident in the past. Predictably, it was his wife who persuaded him to reject Paul. She also convinced her husband that he should change his will, so that Paul has been effectively disinherited.
I stuck my neck out at one point and told Paul that, as far as I could deduce, Australian law and its interpretation of semantics was very much at fault. An ass, in short. According to Australian law, the term ‘next of kin’ has nothing to do with inherited blood in the form of children, for the spouse is always deemed to have the closest relationship to an individual. And time has nothing to do with anything: a wife or husband of one week’s duration has as much power as one of 50 years.
This is not so in other parts of the world. In Greece, for example, it is the children who are protected: it is impossible for children to be disinherited, at least in theory. And in Holland a second spouse is compelled to sign a legally binding contract that guarantees the property rights of the offspring of the first marriage.
The actions of Paul’s stepmother were not illegal, and certainly could not be termed sensational sin, not even by my grandmothers; nor was this sin on a global scale, but it affected Paul very greatly nonetheless, for he felt that a kind of kidnapping of paternal emotions had taken place. He had been presented, quite erroneously, as an exploitative, disaffected son who had designs on a modest fortune.
As a result, he had been robbed of his birthright and of his past: the house that was his mother’s and where he himself lived until he was 20, was sold, and he had no idea what happened to the fabric of family: the ancestral Bibles, the books, the linen his mother embroidered herself, and that her granddaughters might have liked, the photograph albums, the boxes of slides dating from his childhood, all the little things that have meaning and memory for him and for nobody else.
His father and stepmother now reside in a flat that has an unlisted telephone number; Paul’s weekly letters go unanswered.
Paul struggled against the malign influences, and against their dishonesty, manipulation, exploitation, swirling rumour and slander as best he could, and called desperately for help: ‘I’m having a good old whinge to all and sundry,’ he told me, wryly. ‘And do you know what? I’m getting to learn how common this sort of thing is.’ For he soon heard many a tale of wills altered on deathbeds, revocation, under duress, of the all-important power of attorney, and of the tyranny of second spouses. But then he added that he would be eternally and humbly grateful to the few, very few, people, who listened to his cry, who did help, who did all they could, who did not pass by on the other side.
I told him that my grandmothers would certainly have predicted a rich reward in Heaven for these courageous souls.
In Australia I always feel myself to be surrounded by good and conscientious people, but it sobered me to listen to Paul’s story. He had been staggered by the number of people he thought of as friends, yet who refused to help, and so made their excuses: ‘I don’t want to be involved.’ ‘You’ll have to work it out by yourself.’ ‘We’re all on our own in this world, aren’t we?’
As he related all this, I was reminded of the old Greek excuse: ‘There is nothing we can do.’
The great 18th century statesman, Edmund Burke, is supposed to have said that for evil to triumph it requires only that good men do nothing. How right he was: the evil in this small story has triumphed, a wedge has been driven between Paul’s original family and Paul himself. It is as simple and as complex as that, his story, and one that would not have surprised my grandmothers.
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