Christina did not know how she got through the terrible year of Spiro’s breakdown. She felt sure that if she’d had the wise words of her mother and the help of her sisters then surely she would have managed better. Nothing, Christina felt, nothing was worse than being separated from the family. And it was with a willing and generous heart that she sent a letter to Castellorizo after their mother’s death, telling her sister, Marigho, that she and Kosti must certainly come to stay with them as soon as they arrived in Sydney. Now, after only a month, she was desperate to get back to a time when the little flat on top of the shop only had to accommodate herself and Spiro and their five daughters.
The first shock had come when they went to meet the ship. As soon as Christina saw Marigho, she couldn’t believe her eyes. Her younger sister, the beauty of their family, had put on a huge amount of weight. Yes, her complexion was still high, her cheeks pink and her skin remarkably unlined, but it was painful to look at the slow and laboured movement of her body. Christina feared that one of the younger girls might start to laugh at her aunt. To make matters even more comical, Kosti was as skinny and agile as he’d ever been. He ran with springy steps and embraced each one of them, weeping and laughing by turns, while his heavy wife looked on, restrained and disapproving.
As Christina was asking questions about the neighbours still in Castellorizo, she was rapidly replanning. There was no way Marigho and Kosti would fit on the narrow mattresses belonging to Effie and Rina. Only one possibility remained. The visitors would have to go into the main room and have the double bed. After the first night, Spiro, needing his peace, was to move one of the stretcher beds down to the little kitchen. That left only two pairs of the girls to top and tail so that their mother and Effie could have the remaining beds.
Still, if space had been the only trouble, they might have managed. But Marigho criticised everything: the food that was put on the table, the way the girls dressed, the way the girls behaved. She and Effie crossed swords straight away.
‘You shouldn’t be in the shop, in front of all those people,’ Marigho said to her niece. ‘It’s a shameful thing for an unmarried girl to be speaking with men.’ And turning to her sister, she went on, ‘Now that Kosti is here to help, you must take Effie away from the shop.’
Christina was dumbfounded. How on earth would they manage without Effie? But before she had a chance to explain, Effie had her answer.
‘Do you think, Thea Marigho, I’d be working in the shop if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. Baba is not well and you can see how much work Mumma has every day. As for Theo Kosti. Has he worked in a fish shop before? And how will he manage if he doesn’t understand the language?’
Her aunt didn’t take this answer kindly. ‘’Did you hear the way she spoke to me, Christina? Is that the way for a niece to speak to an aunt who has made sacrifices to come and help?’ Marigho went on to badger the younger girls. ‘Do you have to spend time with your books when your mother needs help? And have you asked your aunt if there is anything you can do for her?’
The girls made no reply but Christina could see that her children had made their judgement. It was no time before they were ridiculing their aunt’s slow gait and imitating the whining tone of her scolding.
As for Spiro, he had taken to eating his meals alone and only came back into the kitchen after the shop was shut to share a bottle of beer with Kosti. For the first time for many years, Spiro had found somebody he considered worse off than himself.
Kosti didn’t contradict his wife or make any complaint against her. ‘Be patient with her,’ he said to Christina. ‘It’s hard for her to have lost her father, her sister and then her mother. She’s not strong. I fear she will not live very long.’
Christina shook her head. She loved Kosti, how could you not love a man who was so gentle with the children, so patient with this irritating woman as big as a mountain and as immovable. Christina was determined to do something.
‘You must try to lose weight, Marigho,’ she said to her sister one day in a burst of courage. ‘If you didn’t eat so much bread.’
‘Have I come so far to have my sister begrudge me bread?’
‘No, no, Marigho, it’s just that bread will make you put on weight. You can see we have bananas and apples and pears. These would be better for you.’
‘It’s all very well for you, Christina. You haven’t my digestion to contend with. I can’t take the acid.’
‘Well if you must have the bread and the macaronia you like so much, you really need to take less of them.’
Marigho said nothing but her expression showed she had been wronged. Mealtimes were to take on the exaggerated moves of a mime show as Marigho sat at the table, drawing attention to her small helpings and her own persistent refusal to touch any bread.
Kosti was beside himself with worry. ‘Speak to her Christina. Speak to her. I can see her fading.’
Christina had had enough of her sister’s antics and even her brother-in-law’s weepy concern. As to Marigho fading, as far as Christina could see, her sister was getting fatter.
‘It just goes to show you how much fat she has to feed on,’ Spiro said to his wife.
‘As long as she starts to lose weight, Spiro. Her poor heart, how it must work when it has so much to lug around. But we are making progress. Marigho has begun to help. It happened last week for the first time. As soon as the shop was shut, she went there herself. She’s even taken over some of the chores the girls used to do. It’s the answer, I know. With some activity she’ll lose some weight and will be able to move more easily. She might even get back to her dancing.’
Spiro raised his eyebrows but made no comment. The thought of his sister-in-law’s bulk shaken up in a dance was something he could not even begin to imagine.
In later years, when Marigho had become feared and famous in the Sydney community and had, in her latest attempt at match-making, succeeded in rousing her sister’s fury, one memory would instantly appease Christina’s anger.
The image remained vivid and shocking in Christina’s mind and never failed to stir feelings of pity for her sister.
Strangely the event occurred at a time when it seemed that Marigho and Kosti were beginning to find their place in the family. Kosti, who proved a dab hand at scaling, gutting and filleting fish, was making a real difference in their preparation time. But more surprisingly, after the endless round of Marigho’s complaints and her languid days, Marigho had taken over the final clean up at night. She had freed Rina from sweeping and Anna from moving the uncooked fish into the ice chest and throwing the leftover battered fillets and potato scallops into the garbage bin. She even made her peace with the younger children, telling them that she would look after the salt and vinegar containers and make quite sure that the newspapers were trimmed and tidy.
She went at this with a thoroughness even Spiro could not deny. They were all amazed at how beautifully Marigho cleaned up the counter, taking a soft cloth and making it shine. She even managed to scour the fat-spattered working benches.
Christina was delighted. As the clock moved towards closing time, her sister actually looked eager to get started. ‘You see’, said Christina to her daughters. ‘I told you your Thea had clever hands. In Castellorizo, at Easter time, she made the very best avghoules.’
The children were not overly impressed by their aunt’s talents though they were grateful to have more time to themselves. But Christina was pleased she had something positive to say to her sister. ‘You’ve freed us from that last lot of cleaning, Marigho. It’s a great help to all of us.’ She wanted to go on to say, ‘You see how much better you feel now that you’ve stopped eating so much.’ But she didn’t have the courage to raise that question again.
The days went on. Kosti was growing more used to serving in the shop, though his efforts to learn English made the children laugh. But he was pleasant, smiling as he babbled in what he thought was an English greeting, and surprisingly the bemused customers smiled back at him.
When Marigho went to the shop to start her work in the evening, a kind of peace descended on the household. Effie, freed from having to supervise her sisters’ clean-up, lay on her bed enjoying a book. Her sisters finished off homework and exchanged gossip. The kitchen suddenly took on an easier atmosphere. Kosti and Spiro sat at the table sharing a beer and nibbling on cheese, olives and pickled cucumbers. Christina too sat around the table with her mending and relished the easy conversation.
As she began to sort the clothes for the weekly wash, she discovered a little tear in Marigho’s good crepe dress. The fabric had been strained and would need some thorough oversewing or even a patch to stop the tear getting bigger. She was about to start mending it when she remembered how fussy Marigho was with her clothes. So she took her sister’s dress and went into the shop to check with her.
It was half past nine, Marigho should have almost finished. Yes, the counter was already cleared and set up ready for the next day but Christina could see her sister still busy near the work-bench close to the pans of fat. Marigho was so occupied with what she was doing, she didn’t look round.
Something in the way her sister was standing, her shoulders hunched in concentration on the task in front of her, stopped Christina calling out and as she stepped closer she froze at what she saw.
Marigho had her hands full of half-cooked scallops and fish, and was stuffing them into her mouth. Grease and batter had collected round her mouth and cheeks and chin, and pieces of food were falling onto the bench below her but she took no notice. She went on gorging, her eyes closed in a kind of ecstasy.
Christina backed away, fearing she would be seen. She had to save her sister that humiliation.
Christina said nothing to anyone that night or indeed in the days and years that followed. But the very next day she told Spiro she was taking Marigho to the doctor.
‘You’re sounding as bad as Kosti.’
‘No, Spiro, there has to be something wrong’.
Christina knew she couldn’t take any of her daughters with her to translate. How could she reveal to them the fact of their aunt bingeing on the half cooked food in its heavy grey batter? She would have to explain to the doctor herself in spite of her own difficulties with the language. At least if she was using English, she wouldn’t have to admit to Marigho her knowledge of what she had seen. Whatever it took, Christina had to go ahead. Her sister needed help.
ZENY GILES (Zenovia Doratis) is the daughter of Greek migrants. In 1981 she won the Age Short Story competition and in 1989 Penguin published Miracle of the Waters, stories about the Moree Bore Baths. Caught in the Light, (2002) is her tribute to Newcastle where she has lived most of her life. Her novel, Wedding Dance, (2009) takes a quirky look at both arranged and love marriages. ‘Sisters Together’, is an extract from Zeny Giles’ novel in progress (working title, ‘Island Sisters’) which depicts the lives of three sisters from the Greek island, Castellorizo. (Bio as at 1st December 2012).